The poems in Michael Redhill's fourth collection are serious, mournful, technically accomplished meditations on death, memory, and the essential absence of meaning in contemporary life. They are weighted with sadness, made graceful by a controlled and incisive use of image, and look with a calm and intelligent eye on the ephemeral nature of being. In short, this book is a heavy read only enlivened by the poet's obvious skill with language and his command of voice that speaks out from nearly every page, "we are mortal, time is passing us by."
The dead operate as the main characters in many of the poems, shadowy guides who usher the poet deeper and deeper into explorations of mortality and loss. In "Coming to Earth (Alzheimer Elegy)", for example, the speaker of the poem is a young man trying to come to terms with the cruel disease that has stripped an older man of his memory, and by extension, of his very life. Gradually, through twelve carefully wrought and deeply felt sections, Redhill takes us first into the victim's world, where he prowls "translucent as smoke," with "hands like willows," and on into his Polish immigrant past. But we soon realize that the poem is not merely a catalogue of what has been lost, but rather a loving attempt to find within the tragedy of an individual's fate some sort of redeeming truth by which to invest life with meaning. The speaker of the poem, grieving but not defeated, stares straight into his sorrow, and says,
In one month, the snow here will cover the park,
and I'll look out on it and know where you are
looks exactly the same. Life's vibrancies
astound; death leaches everything
to white. Through this, I love you still,
who are greener and more in flower despite
the coldness of my memory, despite the way
these bones of feeling
and grieving cross each other underground. In
I love you more than speaking loved you, that I can admit
you are a vanished man. Even in the quaint old pictures
your voice comes out like Crosby's, not the swooping, coughing
old man's voice I remember. It changes for me. Softens.
This is fine writing, heartfelt and controlled. Redhill composes his poems as if to the graceful rhythm of some invisible grey rain; in fact, he is a sensitive recorder of that natural descent, of the brief time before our limited music is dissolved into the earth. His Alzheimer elegy is at once achingly truthful and linguistically intricate; for evidence of intricacy, just note the opening of section 5: "What was up came up from under/ your sky was pale blue from the blue of water." Or here, at the end of section 9, see how Redhill's use of repetition and subtle interior rhyme ("tongue" with "young") and end-rhyme ("skin" with "end") create a haunting and inevitable closure:
eat an apricot in the light of the fridge, the smooth
sweet orange youth of it, love and human
sexuality on the tongue, the slight prickle of skin.
And after, the pale fissured stone at the middle,
cold and sharp: living after being young,
loneliness after love,
death at the end, death and dying at the end.
The book's second section contains a number of poems in which the poet travels through and comments on the American landscape. While these pieces, including a long suite of found historical fragments about Ellis Island, are interesting and often wonderfully sensual (especially "Middle America", which opens with, "Walking under the rain-limbed sweet pear/ sharp iron tang of the wet road"), Redhill never quite articulates his motivation for writing them. I kept wondering, why does a young Canadian poet feel compelled to explore the "phantasmal America" with its lost immigrants and "pale stubbled boneyards" of revolutionary soldiers? Of course, a poet can write whatever he chooses, but the reader must be able to participate in the poet's interest. Redhill is a consummate professional in these poems; he writes smoothly, and with much attention to physical detail, capturing a nighttime drive on a Georgia road and the odd sight of two men carrying something (a body? a futon?) through the streets of New York. But why does he write of these things?
This question, innocent as it seems, begins to weigh the book down, and points to the collection's only real weakness. To put it bluntly, Redhill is at times intellectually remote. That is, in his relentless pursuit of defining and unravelling large themes, he writes poems that are unquestionably skilful, but also curiously devoid of intensity and passion. As Frost wrote, "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," and one gets the sense that Redhill rarely shocks himself. The emotional register rarely changes, whether he's writing about a painting by Caravaggio ("Warlike") or imagining his dead grandfather come back to life ("My Grandfather's Empire"). There's something disquieting about the poet's resignation and control; you can almost imagine him, knee-deep in his own grave, calmly directing the grave-diggers where to shovel the dirt.
Of course, sameness of tone can be a virtue, but when the tone is so heavy and controlled, a little goes a long way. Once I had reached the final section of Asphodel, a long, nineteen-part poem in which the poet embarks on a mythic journey under the city of Toronto (according to a note, the poem was "suggested by book six of the Aeneid"), I had begun to lose interest in his concerns, primarily because they were no longer expressed with the winning directness of the Alzheimer elegy. Increasingly, I had the sense that Redhill was straining for profundity rather than letting it build naturally from within. Here is the last half of section 11 of "Going Under", the book's closing poem:
this earth matter bringing itself
to life, to cellular life, to bodily heat,
desire for food, flesh
of others, and speaking. Now,
unseen and silent
in the burrows of the dead, I
am the aneurysm floating
to the middle, alien, unwelcome.
I know that he is there now, sense him.
I am the predator of his sleep.
Again, the skill with language is evident, and the intelligence operating behind the lines impressive, but to what purpose? If a poet writes a long poem whose origin stems from an intellectual conceit (using ancient myth in a contemporary setting), then he'd better be as brilliant as Donne at raising his lines to a kind of fever-pitch of emotion. Otherwise, the extended conceit is doomed to struggle under the burden of its own cleverness. Indeed, reading some of Redhill's poems, I was reminded of the American poet Howard Moss's telling comment, "Two things are equally boring in art: a lack of skill and too much of it." To be fair, Redhill's writing is never dull, but in "Going Under", it certainly pushes the envelope of ponderousness.
Generally, however, Asphodel is a solid collection. Redhill's mature vision, attention to craft, facility for placing a lovely image in just the right place, and willingness to confront the difficult realities of life, show him to be a serious artist whose best work speaks with authority and compassion. If his poems are not yet "the axe to chop the frozen sea inside of us," they are at least a well-banked and controlled fire whose steady heat can thaw the neglected emotional world so many of us are carrying into the next millennium.
Tim Bowling is the author of Low Water Slack (Nightwood).