- The Names of Things: A Memoir
David Helwig became a writer because of King Lear and an algebra exam. In his last year of high school, he felt the writer's old desire to capture moments, create worlds, and avoid math. 'I had given myself the gift,' he recalls, 'of a new ideal of life, one still not very common in Canada, the life of a writer.' A half-century and over thirty books later, he's still living that life.
Helwig was born in Toronto, in 1938. Ten years later the family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where his father bought a small furniture repair business. They were a poor family. Poor enough to make their Christmas tree from discarded branches fastened to a broomstick. Poor enough to need the scholarship from General Motors that sent Helwig to the University of Toronto for four years. The scholarship gave Helwig an education, the education gave him friends, and the friends gave him his first publications: poems in campus magazines, a story on CBC Radio's Anthology, a University College musical directed by Bill Davis, years later to smoke his sinister way through The X-Files as the Cigarette Smoking Man. From these beginnings, Helwig lived the lives remembered in The Names of Things: teacher, friend, husband, father. And always, writer: poems, novels, essays, reviews, scripts, dozens of books edited, written, lived.
The Names of Things takes its title from a poem Helwig wrote about exploring Kingston with his new daughter Maggie in the [End Page 450] early 1960s. 'Maggie and I own all the birds,' says the poem's father, 'and all the plants and animals / because we know all of their names.'
we learned them patiently, one by one;for we would not want to live in a worldwhere we could not call out the names of things.
And that's what the book does for Helwig, for us. All these years later, he's still capturing moments, still calling out the names of things. Many of those moments and names are important: Helwig lived and wrote through the CanLit Boom, the remarkable cultural explosion that took place between the late 1950s and mid-1970s and left us with what are still the best-known names in Canadian literature. He remembers many of them here, names we know well, and names we likely should know better, like poets Tom Marshall and Edward Lacey and publisher Michael Macklem.
Fifty years ago, Helwig began writing in vignettes, scenes rather than stories, 'because that was how the world came to me, in fragments, in moods.' Something of that method survives in his memoir. It's there in his memories of others, of lives crossed as well as lived – a character sketch of CBC TV's impossible and impossibly brilliant John Hirsch, for instance, or a brief scene starring a young, drunk Timothy Findley in 'very brief powder blue shorts.' It's there in the poems and short chapters from the present interspersed throughout the story. And it's there, too, in the book's one – perhaps unavoidable – weakness, the episodic feeling of its later chapters. Mostly, it's there in the well-caught, well-said detail: a poignant conversation overheard in a hospital waiting room, a prophetic road sign in Newfoundland, the way the light hits a room at the end of a day.
Helwig's prose in The Names of Things is clean, solid, more functional than fancy: like I imagine his father's furniture repairs were, like his own renovations of homes in Kingston, Wolfe Island, and now Prince Edward Island. It's an important book by a modest man, a poet who could say of another, better-known poet, Michael Ondaatje, 'With my friends writing like that, how could I not be impelled to write more poetry?' Tom Marshall saw in Helwig 'a struggle between the bourgeois and the arsonist, a selfish, hungry, driven man trying to be a decent husband and father.' Maybe so, but we don't see much of that selfishness here, more the decency.