Review of Gravity Lets You Down by Maggie Helwig
A version of this article originally appeared in Paragraph Magazine and is reproduced here with the author’s permission, September 7, 1999.
I briefly met Maggie Helwig at a party 14 years ago, long before she began her career as an essayist and poet. I was struck by how shy and self-conscious she was. In subsequent months, I was further struck by the frequency of mention of her name in Toronto newspapers. She quickly became a mainstay of left-wing activism of all types, primarily of anti-war demonstrations, and was regularly getting herself arrested for the brazenness of her protests. My memory of a tight-lipped Helwig, as brief as it was, is itself an oddity for its uncertain juxtaposition atop the verbose and introspective contemporary image I now have of the author of Gravity Lets You Down.
The book is ostensibly a work of creative narrative that will probably be filed in bookstores among short story collections. But there is no fiction here, only first-person observations interspersed with political essays reproduced from micro-press and niche magazines like CRASH and The Nerve. Punctuating the narrative are sudden, incomprehensible ejaculations of Helwig’s poetry –italicized for good measure– that seem to have gushed directly from the Aprocypha.
A first reaction is to describe this work as arrogant, in much the same way that adolescent angst-filled poems are insolent for their assumption of moral superiority and uniqueness. If this were a work of fiction, the characterizations of young politically-concerned people in downtown Toronto filling their evenings with spray-painting slogans on walls and stapling educational fliers to telephone polls, would be trite and cliched. But this is, after all, Maggie Helwig, so the truth of these experiences cannot be denied. Seemingly oblivious to the oddness of her chosen lifestyle, Helwig describes meeting a lover while in jail after a demonstration, being driven to tears while reports of Indonesia’s oppression of East Timor are heard over the radio, and enjoying a first name familiarity with a policeman who arrests her regularly.
Though my tendency is to dismiss the described activities of Helwig and her friends as naive and ingenuous, the pursuits of stunted adolescents and blinded idealists, there is a further truth that prevents such ready repudiation: their motivation is pure, and their desire to right political wrongs is genuine, even to the point of exposing themselves to bodily harm. This is much more than the majority of us can ever lay claim to. Respect must therefore be given to Helwig’s efforts, and a reviewer’s limited perspective must be pried wider to allow the sighting of more peripheral elements of depth.
Two such elements linger in my memory. The first describes an activist attack on a factory where weapons are made. The night before, Helwig tells of filling vials with the activists’ own blood to be thrown at the building. If this were a work of fiction, such a scene would be bold and devious for its potent imagery and symbolism. As it is, the activity is insidiously clever, perhaps more powerful for its reality. Clearly, though, this effect is unintentional.
The second memorable element is Helwig’s declaration that her two favourite cities are Toronto and… Byzantium. The role of this chapter-length comparison is uncertain in the context of a book ostensibly about personal motivations in a political milieu. But the comparison itself makes some heuristic sense, and I found myself thankful that it had been voiced: my own love for Toronto now seemed to make artistic sense given its indirect similarity to the lush Byzantine capital.
Despite these interesting respites, Gravity Lets You Down suffers from its meandering introspection and purposelessness. It simply fails to hold one’s attention. This is a shame, given the obvious richness of Helwig’s personal experiences.
Scientist/author Raywat Deonandan's website is www.deonandan.com