Review by Tom Sharp

Tom Sharp is a Native American of Aleut heritage, a member of Seldovia Village Tribe, and has a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is the author of numerous books, including “Objectivists” 1927-1934: A critical history of the work and association of Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Ezra Pound, and George Oppen.

Some of us attend church; some watch PBS; some attend college; some attend yoga classes. A desire to expand our lives is a universal human characteristic. This desire leads many of us to attend poetry readings and to read books of poetry. 

Gil Helmick’s latest collection, The Cacophony of Rapture, contains more than a set of sermons, documentaries, college lectures, or meditation exercises. These poems are eye-opening, mind-opening doors to worlds that probably exist around you wherever you live, but that you will see with a more active perspective.

This book contains two collections, “20/20,” and “The Cacophony of Rapture,” both of which Helmick created during his artist’s residency at L’Alba in Charleroi, Belgium. L’Alba is a “House of Shared Talents,” the work of Belgian jazz singer, flutist, and composer Mélanie De Biasio, with whom Helmick has collaborated on De Biasio’s last three albums. We can read some of the poems as Helmick’s offerings for future compositions by De Biasio, but they have a music and a determination of their own.

“20/20” has twenty poems that give you paths into and out of Helmick’s surreal and noir visions of tough and gentle lives observed in cafés, train yards, and city parks. His own life is played by your favorite character actor, with flashbacks from a life of poignant and wry intensities.

Helmick is a humanist, not a nihilist or horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or romance writer. You can follow his thoughts as ways to deepen your own experiences of love and loss, of coping and of failing to cope, of ecstasy and fear of ecstasy, while the poems fulfill our need for understanding and sympathy.

Helmick’s work is both serious and entertaining. His verses lead you from exposition of themes to deeper meanings by a path of terse felicities: rhymes, repetitions, and succinct descriptions of real lives in interesting settings.

All the while, Helmick celebrates the life’s joys and mysteries. In the poem “on thin ice, might as well dance,” Helmick walks on ice “as delicately / as victory and redemption / allow” while “beneath the frozen surface” “weeds wave icy fingers” in “the amniotic fluid” that seems to invite him like the singing siren’s song.

You can follow his thoughts as a way of working out issues of addiction and control. Can we see clearly (“20/20”) when our desired intensities are disorienting (when we suffer “the cacophony of rapture”)?

In the second collection, “The Cacophony of Rapture,” the central theme is rapture, personified as a destructive lover, a joyful lover, a Philistine scapegoat, a witness to a murder, an innocent child caught in a web of mystery, or a threat to your identity. Each poem an intensification of what you will feel is a sad truth. The obsessions of our civilization have been self-destructive. Our obsessions are like a drug that we have not managed to kick, but that control us even though we try to deny it.

Helmick recognizes that our world’s exploitation of resources is a “heresy” that we all suffer from:

The longest poem is this collection is “my name is silence.” This chronicles the history of the infiltration and corruption of the Swiss company Crypto AG by the CIA and the German intelligence agency to sell encryption machines that contained a secret flaw that let us decrypt messages containing state secrets from both friendly and unfriendly countries during the Cold War, during military coups in South America, the Sandinista revolution, and the contra war in Nicaragua.

Helmick sustains this poem for sixteen pages by adeptly relating the story to the larger themes of deception, exploitation, and the secrecy that enables these evils. In turn, these relate to the larger themes of the book. Maintaining secrecy meant that we couldn’t openly fight the atrocities that we witnessed. Addiction, control, and power cannot be ends in themselves. If we stop here, our lives lose meaning. 

Helmick warns of this loss of meaning in two poems, “tilt” and “tilt, a sequel.” Legacy thinking teaches us nothing. Secrecy and denial cannot protect us when our obsession with power threatens us with desolation.

Read this book of poems and enjoy how their forms inform your world, not only while you are reading them, but also after you close the book, as your memories deepen.