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Asphodel

by Michael Redhill

Asphodel is so many books in one. If Toronto writer Michael Redhill were not so persistent in his return to a central rumination on the slow approach of death, I would have thought this a collection of false starts. As it is, threaded quite dexterously with a mixture of dread and acceptance, Asphodel proves to be an expert blending of histories, be they personal, general, or imagined.

The book’s centre is a collection of 15 found poems Redhill scraped together from journals, old newspaper reports, signs, receipts, and invoices discovered at New York’s Ellis Island, the immigrants’ gateway to America. In these few spare pieces, he works through all of his book’s primary preoccupations: America and its presence as both hopeful destination and land of despair, the experience of the immigrant in a new world, madness and forgetting, and, finally, death.

Two longer segments bracketing the book – “Coming to Earth (Alzheimer Elegy)” and “Going Under” – study loss (of memory, loved ones, and one’s self) in greater depth. “Going Under” takes the reader on a tour of the underworld that makes brilliant use of Toronto’s subterranean geography. These are dreams and visions, inspired by the anesthetist’s needle but with the eerie air of certain knowledge rather than hallucination. It is powerfully imagined work.

However, the strongest poems occur during the less morbid section, “Living Among.” Here Redhill sprinkles in a few perfect vignettes that show life to be as captivating as the afterlife. Here, also, we see pure artistry in the constructed image:

A vapour rose from the bayou,
made a tiny room enclosing the car,
a bright opacity that moved with us
like a spirit. He puffed on his cigarette, his
hand
curled along the top of the wheel. A red star
glowed against the windshield.


Throughout Asphodel, Redhill spirals back to the hinge-point between life and death, what he calls “the lip of consciousness.” These are poems of fascination, terrifying in their inquisitiveness, and inviting in their beauty.