Anna Wrobel, freelance historian, educator, and poet, has a master’s degree from Columbia University in the city of New York.
Gil Helmick, though more surrealist than nihilist, identifies our era as an off-the-cliff high tech dark ages, broken beyond any harmonic repair. Still the poet takes in what joy he finds in “on thin ice, might as well dance,” where “victory” is delicately balanced with “redemption.” Like the surrealists, Helmick’s observations take on a cubist quality, as discursive poems unveil prismatic planes of existence all in motion at once. A cacophony. He wrestles with the non-harmonic convergence of places, cultures, events and persons in The Cacophony of Rapture.
Helmick’s historical underpinnings are learned and judicious, giving context to contemporary events and personal perceptions. His evaluation of electronic technology’s deterministic rush to digital fragmentation and delusion rings with unfortunate truth. Helmick sees how disruptive innovations and technological revolutions have led to this day. I share the poet’s ardor to push back against myth in place of history. It’s not easy being historically adept and poetic at the same time. Few pull it off well. Gil does.
This often philosophical work binds political and personal narratives, as in “the maw,” where the devastation of Vietnam was concurrent with the countercultural refutations of the young; where deadly horror was concurrent with a free and lyrical sensuality. Gil, a seemingly born bohemian, is both product and agent of Sixties movements. A universalist poet who’s lived in frequent motion, Gil covers broad and merging geographies. A moving current runs through his words and tempo roots us in the experience. Poetics vary from rhythmically complex free verse to fresh and inventive rhyme.
The poet views history’s past at one end, and eternity’s future at the other, both increasingly concrete in the present. Wherefore cacophony. Wherefore rapture. History and eternity are personal concerns we can do little to affect, so we do what little we can. Gil quotes Leonard Cohen in Heart with No Companion, “I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair / with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” Cacophony contains the dissonance between fate and agency captured here.
This is a work “in two movements,” a musical reference. The first part illuminates cacophony and rapture with echoing elements - “alias of words,” “free jazz of karma,” “heresy of OIL,” “vertigo.” We’re repeatedly warned that we’ve “lost the meaning of the word ‘tilt’.”
No extreme is too extreme. In “the free jazz of karma,” Helmick speaks of
“hindsight” is Gil’s personal self review while “retroactive clairvoyance” wanders into grand stratospheres “mired in legacy thinking.” Gil knows there were long signs of coming decay, as in the case of climate change. The passing of empires is not pretty and mass disruption almost a given within decades of decline. In another poem Gil tells us to
He takes the long view and “a road ruined” is a concise rendering of the breakage of our epoch
The poet indicts a destructive petroleum age, still toxic as it grasps for power and earth, our children and theirs, be damned
Contained within, too, are poems of love, beauty, sadness, gladness, loss, hope, age and wisdom. Gil sits at Belgian cafes, noting a spectrum of situations, his “afternoon cubist dream.” In “attracting a new season,” Gil notes the hardships of some passing in winter’s gloom. But then
and the poet takes in the carefree moment in which life renews and decay abates. There’s a love affair in “wild and wise” and in “six letter word,” Helmick finds beauty even in the clutter of life’s artifacts. Seeking the universal in the particular, zen and karma are invoked as unified whole alongside myriad refracted images of the One. Rapture. Cacophony.
In my name, Helmick is
Only a willed ignorance could be surprised the planet is suffering or that radical technologies determine extreme and rapid change. The second movement takes us into “clashing tribal noise . . . dust clouds obscuring the crumbling tower of babel.” Carl Sagan’s 1995 passage sums up “a foreboding” that the last decades left us with “a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Gil’s work, in part, is to dispel ignorance though he tells us in “tilt” that “sadly”
Knowing the history of how we got here doesn’t get us out of it. But Helmick still works at it, for as Leonard Cohen asserts
and so Helmick keeps his own council and his promises, which may “count for nothing.”
The second movement contains “my name is silence,” an epic poem on the history of advanced electronics in surveillance and spying. It begins with WWII anti-Nazi spy efforts when radar and computers were young. Helmick tells of high tech spying from WWII to the intelligence community’s seamless relationship with large corporate entities during and after the Cold War. He illuminates the Edward Snowden affair in the light of this history. The exposition is not precisely poetry, not precisely prose. What it is, however, is oddly engaging. I was drawn into the saga after a couple of pages like a whodunnit that matters.
There is alarm at “the dark ages of american cryptology,” a manifest destiny of both expansion and consolidation, “a brave new world” of “ . . . devices engineered to betray their buyers.” It’s “an oz-like operation” for little is as it seems with this uncontrollable controlling technology. There’s that cliff again. The list of unknowing customer nations is a regular “we are the world” global village. Crypto workers for NSA and CIA, like Snowden, grapple with mass deceptions once they recognize these as such. Some even flee. Many businesses, too, don’t imagine what they’re in bed with, and to know is to fear.
The last few pieces are sequels to and enlargements of ideas articulated earlier. Poems dialogue and check in with each other over time. A surrealist thread is evident but Gil really is just doing his own thing - being thoughtful and expressive with still a thought for the children. We live with “. . . abandoned factories . . . a withering amazon . . . ghost guns . . . the lost meaning of tilt.” Complex global events, powered by a century and a half of carbon fuels, have left their debris and detritus and whole segments of societies swept away.
Winter poems draw us inward where life is found in the art we can generate and radiate. Gil permits that life to come in—
This work cannot end with the vague sense it’ll be just fine. In “my name is rapture,” Helmick agitates against such delusion, “the catastrophe of looking away . . . to share the final mirage” while air wars go on, a technocratic banality of evil. Gil leaves us with reality, as fantasy and myth got us here. The volume ends with excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” he leaving us with an ultimate overview—
Cacophony of Rapture is Gil Helmick’s witness to this truth.