Twitch Force is Michael Redhill’s first collection of poetry in almost two decades. Before the poetry itself even begins, it is clear that this will not be poetry for the faint of heart. “Force potentiation,” the epigraph from Rene Vandenboom, a kinesiologist at Brock University, informs us, is defined as “the transient increase in isometric twitch force evoked by prior contractile activity.” If an epigraph represents a sort of door to a book, this one has a bouncer posted outside. You don’t have to be on a list, but you definitely need to prove your bona fides.
That is to say, Redhill’s poems demand a lot of the reader. A poem called “Mycelium” requires us to know not only what the title refers to but also the meaning of words like “hyphae” and “clitocybe.” Other poems challenge vocabularians with words like “telomere,” “phosphatidylinositol,” and “tetrahydrocannabinol.” There is no reason poets should not be scientifically literate and bring the specialized language of science into their poems. But what they gain in a desirable strangeness they may lose in a rebarbative first impression.
Redhill’s collection is divided into three sections – “Astronomical Twilight,” “Chemical Drowsing,” and “Core Sample” – all quite rich and suggestive titles drawn from cosmology, chemistry, and geology respectively. The poems themselves are often irremediably odd. One consists entirely of subjects anyone might enter into Google (e.g., “cheap flights” or “how do you spell ecclessiasticcal” [sic]), another of statements like “Matter makes a dire osmosis” and “Before the internet, I wore ugly vests.”
“Scar Tissue” is a poem in nine parts that requires a full-page note involving a theory promulgated by Dr. Glenn Prestwich, a medical researcher. The poem could exist perfectly well without the annotation; it includes some of Redhill’s most imaginative lines: “Our // world is the dream we’re having while we / live these lives on earth.”
By contrast, there is nothing like pedantry to sink a poem. We don’t really need a poet to tell us that French has no native words that begin with W or that Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card is worth a pile of money. And if any reader does not know what the “stone vagina” mentioned in a poem in the third section is, I urge you not to Google the phrase.
Redhill is at his best when he is most down to earth – not the earth that does admittedly contain telomeres and “an overactive precuneus,” but the earth of penetrative observations such as “I’m planning to be wrong about everything,” or “Shake / and sizzle, the empty banging of the stars,” or “Change is the // nursery of music, joy, / life and eternity. Sing it.”
Redhill may really believe, as he writes in “Continuous Action in the Present,” that poetry is “for nothing and it’s good at it.” His poems, when they are at their most accessible and least determinately clever, definitively prove otherwise.
Correction: An earlier version of this review attributed a line by the poet Paul Celan to the author of the collection under review. Q&Q regrets the error.