Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I don't mean to be insulting when I say I loved Michael Redhill when I was 15. To say such things, well it can be insulting (eg I loved City of Angels when I was 15—eugh, true story) but it doesn't have to be. I loved W H Auden when I was 15. I loved Enda St Vincent Millay when I was 15. In some ways I had very defensible tastes back then.

Redhill, yes. When I saw that Consolation, his latest novel, was nominated for the Booker Prize, I thought, holy shit. I remember when his first novel, Martin Sloane, came out in 2001 and being a bit indifferent to the idea of Redhill writing prose. (I was won over by Sloane when I read it—in hardcover—in 2001. I also remember that the Globe&Mail review made a big deal out of the fact he utilized a female narrator...was that really the most interesting thing about it?)

Even if my taste in poetry has changed over time, I still gotta say I love his verse. I think of it as very confident, very declarative. Deliberate. Even definitive, as is the case with “Getting Sick.” I feel like I'll never write on the subject; his treatment is just so good.

Getting Sick
Michael Redhill

The body stops discussing. No more
loose warnings late at night, moss
tongues or headaches. It happens
when you are sleeping, the dreaming
head still thrumming in its shell
and the body bends out. Your shape
disintegrates in those few hours, the
headache settles in a petri dish, spots
up and blurs, the throat peels
like a rind, its music baroque,
the skin goes litmus. In the bathroom
rodent-throated, hunched like a Henry
Moore over the bowl, unable
to speak as your body tells it all.
It knows you much better than you,
does its thing, acts like a parent
who is tired of explaining. Out, poor
franks and gravy, farewell unctuous
creams! Your skin is a sieve,
your whole body shuts down as if
it is testing for mice in the walls
and needs total silence. It carries you
back and forth all day, the brilliant god
evicting the garden from you.

-from Impromptu Feats of Balance (Wolsak and Wynn, 1990)

It's a poem so good, even my mother likes it. The way he works figurative language is to turn a story into the archetypal story. “Your whole body shuts down as if / it is testing for mice in the walls / and needs total silence.” Delicious metaphor. Second-person pronouns. Being so direct isn't always a good thing, but with Redhill, the effect is, like I say, to appear definitive. I think that appeals to a teenager. Now lines like “My body's / about to bolt and go to seed” (from “Heat VII” Light-crossing, House of Anansi, 2001) are the hooks that keeps me re-reading his poetry.

The being definitive and direct thing: it's not always true. There's a wonder elliptical poem in Light-crossing called “Sudden”. The ostensible subject is a near-fatal bee sting the narrator's mother survives. It's in five parts, but none of the parts mention a bee sting. And at the end of the first part, the narrator tells you his mother died. And then the final part, an elegy to the bee, is only obliquely addressed to the bee, such that if you didn't know better, you'd think he was talking about the dead-or-not-dead mother. All of the readers' assumptions work against them in that poem. It's really quite amazing.

His poetry is worth seeking out is all I mean to say. Light-crossing in 2001 was his last, as far as I know. By which I mean, according to his Wikipedia page. Maybe he's got something forthcoming?