Book Review by Michael Murray

KAREN SOLIE: THE LIVING OPTION, SELECTED POEMS.
Bloodaxe Books, 2013

 

1
When you are familiar with the later work of a writer certain adjustments have to be made when reading the earlier work. That earlier work begins with ‘Short Haul Engine’, 2001.

Ok, an impressive title in itself, it speaks of no-nonsense, of stamina and a heavy freight of subjects matter, themes.

Then came MODERN AND NORMAL, 2003, suggesting an expansion of themes, subject, a willingness to take on the ordinary and reveal its specialness.

The volume most caught my attention was PIGEON, 2009.

 

The biographical details give us: Canadian writer. Already there are certain expectations as to style, accessibility, subject matter. Canadian writing is a sadly neglected area for the UK.

Next we have: born such and such a date, Moose Jaw. The name is thrown in the air: we are to notice this.

Moose Jaw is a smaller city in southern Saskatchewan.

And southern Saskatchewan is farming country, the northern end of the Great Plains. It is also tornado country. Southern Saskatchewan is peppered with abandoned townships: farms have grown by buying out the small farmers. It is a place wide open to summer heat, and long winter months, many in the minus forties.

 

In the early 1990s the Canadian government made a decent gesture, attempted a decent thing, for its native population. A number were able to buy land (back); many moved to cities: Regina is a good example. In the early 1960s Buffy Ste Marie reforged her contact with her native roots, the Piapot Cree people, of this area.

Watch ‘A Multimedia Life’, her biographical TV profile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1q1k5xyqXw‎.

 

2

The second poem in of the selection, JAVA SHOP, FORT MACLEOD, gives us a ‘horse killing plant’ as she travels the highways, the hot flat plains, past run-down towns, motels, shops. First we have the casual cruelty in STURGEON, of children fishing, ‘On an afternoon mean as a hook we hauled him/ up to his nightmare…’ and left him. We have in IN PASSING a car engine popping ‘like a rabbit gun’, and the ‘dead stares of twisted deer.’

All these instances are just details in the more general ‘camera take’ we are given in the poems. What we are introduced to here is an unwavering look at one’s time and place.

 

That first quote gives us ‘mean’, working on two levels; we have the wide open prairie and a relentless sun, and the pejorative of action recollected under a more active moral code.
Spoiler: The fish actually  made it back on its own.

 

The regional city of Regina grew from a settlement called, colourfully, Pile o Bones. Online there are photos of a long and high wall of buffalo bones left by local tribes.

All falls within the scope of the observant eye; Karen Solie does not pass over the unpleasant and what is generally avoided. In its way, this is also a very American trait, as is her travelling, road persona, in the early books.

 

Her subjects are given an even-eyed look; they are detailed in passing.
Yes, but is not the eye more attuned to certain things than others? The deadness at the centre of Lake Erie, we cannot help but hear as the ‘dead heart’, that is widening, growing. We are subtly directed to this conclusion, perhaps. Yet she pulls back and away from blame, repudiation. We do not come here to read someone’s predjudices, limitations.

 

As welcome corrective we have the overall plangent tone of the horse-killing poem; later we have the delightful and melancholic SICK: ‘Sullen crows/  mimic wreckage and rust/ and the neighbour’s dog sobs with loneliness.’ Listen to how the ‘s’ sounds are used, and how they reinforce the weather sounds, and the body’s self-sounds: ‘How solitary each noise in its net/ of air…’.

 

What kind of sickness is this? She writes again, ‘You left/ on the third straight day of rain, left me/ the germ of an idea,/ a little something to chew on as citizens hammer/ the accidents of their lives into suburbs…’ Again, a line can pivot on the levels of meaning of one word: ‘straight’, meaning the torrential unrelenting rain of the open spaces, and the three-days straight of endless rain. ‘Germ’, of course, needs no elaboration.
What especially pleases is how the local sounds are also acknowledged: the background ‘s’ of the rain, and endless neighbour-sounds of hammering, banging.

 

I wrote above about reading a person’s prejudices etc. She takes this on in her later work. Others have noted how she can control a personalisation of a character-type in her writing. She portrays the errors of thinking, and ignorance of one’s ignorance, that we all are privy to in varying degrees in our lives. The even-eyed look becomes a clear-eyed look. She acknowledges the faulty equipment we all have to work with.
In a way does she give Canada as the human character writ large, with its empty and derelict places of memory, and the tawdry ideals and plans used up and gone to waste?

If this is so it is in human closeness she places her trust. Her poems also acknowledge the loss and need, the yearning and comfort to be found in relationships. The poems are wider and bigger than the personal, but it is the personal that informs them, that notices and responds.

 

I also wrote above how I had looked forward to her book PIGEON, 2009. Here we find the glorious rhetorical verbal fireworks of TRACTOR:  ‘More than a storey high and twice that long,/ it looks igneous, the Buhler Versatile 2360,/ possessed of the ecology of some hellacious/minor island on which options/

are now standard. Cresting the sections/ in a corona part dirt, part heat, it appears/ risen full-blown from our deeper needs,/ aspirating its turbo-cooled air, articulated/ and fully compatible….’ That first stanza ends with a droll and delightfully wry ‘Few things wrought by human hands/ are more sublime than the Buhler Versatile 2360.’

 

The second stanza changes tack and tone: ‘Across the road, a crew erects the floodlit/ derricks of a Texan outfit whose presumptions/ are consistently vindicated./ The ancient sea bed will be fractured to 1000 feet/ by pressuring through a pipe literal tons/ of a fluid – the constituents of which/ are best left out of this –  to tap the sweet gas where it lies like the side/ our bread is buttered on….’

 

Yep, fracking, with its ‘…. fluid/the constituents of which…’.

 

I used a longer extract here to show how the writer handles so many and varied dictions, levels of discourse. Our ear is once again strung on the assonance, the ‘i’s of ’floodlit’ – ‘derricks’, to ‘outfit’… ‘consistently vindicated’ for example; repetition: ‘of a fluid’ – … ‘of which’. The last line’s homely phrase is full of undertones: official local-politic pronouncement (“We should be grateful…”), and the Company’s ingratiatingly ‘folksy’ attempt to win people over. Mixed with this last is also nationalistic smear: the Texan outfit talking to backswoods Canadians supposedly in a language they would understand: the side/ our bread is buttered on….’.

 

3

I am wary of this openness; what people take on when they take on the world ‘as it is’, is millennia of false-starts, mistakes and ignorance, on top of the harshness of nature. There is too much, too many built-up mistakes and ‘short-cuts’, that over time cannot but overwhelm. One must be selective in order to survive. The ugliness and spirit-breaking aspects of our world are almost wholly man-made.

 

Am I being too delicate? I am as delicate as I am; I could not stomach the implications of that wall of buffalo bones the tribes left at Pile o Bones. There are far worse things.

 

There is also in this approach the Buddhist mind-set in this approach, how the meditator’s eye sees all but is not ensnared by what it sees. But unless one continually tops-up by practice it becomes difficult to sustain, that detachment. In some writers it so easily become uncaring. In all this heritage of the beat poets lingers long.

 

Does Karen Solie pose the question of whether we rely too much on the happy, the pleasant, the positive and upbeat?
There are noticeable numbers of motel bars and drunk moments in the early poems. These would tend to emphasise the down-beat durations. That is not what I wonder about: by accepting as normal our due of grim and hard do we redraw the psychic balance, and appreciate the ups and downs better for what they are? That is, instead of trying to live in fantasy happy land all the time?

 

From MODERN AND NORMAL her poems engage with Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, found poems. Later, in AN ACOLYTE READS THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING she writes of urban  as well as wider struggles: ‘(…) I have dissolved/ like an aspirin in water watching (…)/(…) the momentary/ solace of what has nothing to do with me, brief/ harmony of particulars in their separate orbits (…)’. Her poems take in the origins of the concept of zero (CIPHER STROKE). In ARCHIVE we have a seven page prose form meditation on photographic art. This long piece is a successful attempt to hold the details of a period of life in the mind’s eye, and then get it down on paper – no mean feat.

 

4

There are number of clips and recordings of her reading. Her reading manner is to disregard the page layout, and read for sense, usually sentence length. In so doing she strides stanza breaks and line endings.

This poses the question: what is a true way of reading?

My way is to pause at line ending, treat each line as a composite, whole both aloud and in silent reading. One hopes therefore that the listener can retain the sense units in suspension until the sentence is completed. And then to be immediately ready to continue with the next.

When we hear her read do we lose the arts of the line-making, the music and response calls of vowels and consonants?

It depends how practiced we are at listening.

 

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