A Review of George Swede’s Helices
by Anna Yin
Mississauga’s Inaugural Poet Laureate
George Swede’s new book has a very special title “Helices” with a cover design which is a photo of spiral staircases. The book is special not only for it is a combination of haiku, tanka and haibun that are derived from traditional Japanese poetic forms which share close connections to nature in a keen objective observation, but also it greatly surprises us by its depth and honesty in exploring the self’s mind and troubled world outside through the construction of helices. The book is divided into four sections: “Single Helix”, “Double Helix”, “Triple Helix” and “Beyond the Triple Helix”. From single to double to triple and to beyond, Mr. Swede explores the complication of orders, cycles and construction from a single self to loved ones to the world and to the Beyond. In each section, Mr. Swede begins to explain where helices can be found that gives us a viewpoint, drawing his source from molecular biology. For example, in “Single Helix” it opens with two one-line haiku: “sandcastle my carefully constructed self” and “the fantasy that is me central singularity”. They clearly set the tone of reflection, doubting about the construction and creation of one’s own self. Mr. Swede continues “a grain of sand/in my umbilicus/the theory of everything”; on the one hand, “a grain of sand” might refer to William Blake’s “Seeing the world in a grain of sand”, but it also can imply the grave theme: the inevitable life cycle ending in death. Through the aging process, he witnesses human life, vulnerable to death, as tides of disappearing names. Mr. Swede cannot help but wonder about the meaning of life. He hopes to grasp it, yet it seems to slip through his fingers. Mr. Swede tries to connect “The urge for immortality” and “the mind search for answers” through writing, yet he simply finds: “all day writing poems…/the sound of paper settling/in the bin” and “my bio-/the sun’s glare thru/ bare branches”.
His puzzlement and doubt are like “a snake asleep/tail to mouth”. Self-awareness and doubt naturally and profoundly rise in these short haiku; I believe only advanced haiku poets like Mr. Swede can achieve this. I also want to point out that the longing for freedom and courage is fully awakened (in some sense with a regret) by Mr. Swede, and he can deeply touch readers through these haiku: “what I want to say/censored by the time of/my tongue and fingers-/the dawn bird chorus strait from the heart” and “Forces beyond control/made and now destroy me/bit-by-bit-/a second frost coming for the last three lantana blooms”. Perhaps Mr. Swede here alludes to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” These kinds of self-construction evidently are influenced by society, as in his haiku” my shadow’s head/on the other side of the chasm/a bank statement” and “I support/100 trillion microbes- unfair tax hike” show.
In “double helix” Mr. Swede shifts his caring to relationships, love and family with DNA and blood connecting the dots. Coincidently when I re-read the book, on the page 50, where the haiku “trees reveal/the coming storm/she undoes her hair” appears, I found a long black hair. I assume it was mine, and interestingly, the following haiku reads “together at last the sounds of our prewords”. Of course I know these things occurred by chance, but the beauty of haiku might show here by claiming good haiku is supposed to share a moment and invite readers to fill in its open ending, and here the reader completes these experiences. As Mr. Swede observes, “When understanding/starts then stops/birth cry”. Perhaps, although in these helix sections and following, Mr. Swede frequently deals with passing, doubts, world troubles, and other heavy and dark moments, he also hopes that we not only are aware of them, but also look beyond them, as he ends it in “Beyond the Triple Helix” as follows:
“thoughts escape via fingers and tongue to what they imagine are freedom and fortune.
driftwood still wet-
the sea unseen beyond
the vast tidal flat”
Editor’s Note on Helices: A Review by Anna Yin
Reviewer Anna Yin has had a variety of her own poetry and other reviews previously published by Eastlit: