Book Review

Helge Torvund’s Seriously Well is a case study in the complexity of simplicity, offering a striking meditation on the alchemy of art and life that walks a circuitous path through memory, music, and light to the moment the author learns he has a potentially life-threatening illness. Using language that is conversational, and at times spare, Torvund calls readers to attention, asking if “you can / awake / and become / even more awake / than awake?” Torvund’s ability to see precisely and bring abstracts like death into greater focus turns what could be a quick read of his collection into an invitation to slow down, to consider.

As a book-length poem, Seriously Well is not complicated by section breaks or poem titles. However, Torvund has clearly formed his poem around longer sets that share the same places, times, and intentions, with several short pieces bridging between ideas. These sets are subtly denoted by asterisks at each set’s end, as if offering a breath between what precedes and follows. The first twelve pages of the collection create the first neighborhood of poems, in which Torvund considers words as a magic that allows for the understanding of human expression and the natural world. On the final page of this set, Torvund asks:

Can you
instead of
grieving the awful
deeds you have done,
or shuddering
dread the horror
that may come,
enjoy the fact
that you are
seriously well?

Torvund spends the remainder of his collection attempting to work out a satisfactory, even essential, answer.

The second set in Seriously Well begins with doctor-prescribed walks that Torvund took as a teenager through a gated bird park . The walks, meant to counter the budding poet’s brooding and melancholy, hone young Torvund’s eye and bring him to the realization, on page fifteen, that Death has always been his companion:

I said: OK; so there you are then.
I might as well shake hands with you,
and accept that you are here.
In this way I included Death in my life.
And I have known it since then.

Torvund’s ability to live with Death does not diminish the pain of imagining a world where he no longer exists, but by thinking beyond “how it all / will continue / without me,” he eventually finds comfort and peace. For Torvund, water and light also bring comfort, especially light, as seen in one of the most affective passages of Seriously Well, beginning on page nineteen. Here, Torvund places love alongside the first light filling his newborn eyes, the light on butterfly wings and bluebells, the light that illuminates river stones at its bottom. He gives shape to his love’s internal light in these pages, and by doing so, he “knows / my place.”

 A common walking route is the scene of the next set in Seriously Well. While his wife and daughter sleep, Torvund roams through moonlit snow, noting the distortion such nighttime wandering creates on well-known pathways. By the quay, Torvund encounters a dying heron, but walks on to leave the bird some peace in its final moments. On his return, Torvund passes the now-dead bird and imagines it soaring through the air or standing in the shallows to catch a fish. For Torvund, the heron is exemplar of “a life in patience, in air and water,” and the silence and cold of its end holds both the grief of deeds undone and grief for what is still to come.

In subsequent sets, Torvund recalls “The Restless One,” a man who wandered about a park picking up nature’s debris, and his uncle, the doctor attempting to treat this grief-stricken man, who is desperate to transform “the dead things / into living creatures.” He also imagines a musician improvising a new piece on a grand piano in front of an appreciative, but expectant, audience. In this musical set, the poet and his musician seem nearly one, ready to perform, but tired and at an instrument that is not particularly favored. Both are magicians, building rhythm from the black and white keys, and both “groan / under the tremendous / power” of creating art out of nothing, or rather, out of life’s joys and sorrows.

A serious illness is, of course, among life’s great sorrows, and the speed of Torvund’s poetry accelerates in the final pages of Seriously Well, both in the straightforward reporting of his lines and in the increased use of asterisks to create breaks in tempo that would otherwise race ahead. With each page, Torvund expresses the shock and uncertainty that clutches at him following his diagnosis. How do you move forward into such unknown horror, and how do you share that horror with those you most love? Lacking clues and guidance, Torvund, on page sixty-eight, somehow locates:

A feeling that told me
that when it is darkening around the heart,
and the time is shrinking,
you have to embrace the fear
and give yourself over
to an insane confidence.

Torvund’s decision “to be where I am, / be alive / in that which is” as he waits for the train that will take him home to his family and their new reality seems nearly improbable, but for the preceding strength of thought Torvund expresses throughout Seriously Well.

Is it possible to learn to live a life focused more on what is going well than what brings grief or horror, even amid the gravest of sorrows? Helge Torvund’s Seriously Well suggests that the answer is yes. This moving collection provides us a blueprint for considering the interlocking elements of our lives while not ignoring our companion, Death. Seriously Well also gives us, in its closing image, a heron flying “outwards over / the huge illuminated / expanse / of the ocean.”  Meaning, it gives us all the hope that art, music, and light can bring.

About the Reviewer

Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.