Review by Andrew Faulkner

Karen Solie
House of Anansi Press, 2009
112 pages, $18.95

We know who Karen Solie is. She is the author of Short Haul Engine and Modern and Normal, which have brought her a fistful of awards and nominations. Solie was the Canadian judge for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize, and between other engagements she is a frequent presence at Sage Hill and the Banff Centre. She writes poems that say things like: “Some things don’t turn out the best, / and are not even interesting. Forget them. Because / this is about you, and what happens next.” The slim lines of Solie’s remarkable poems pin you, not viciously, but you get the feeling they could be vicious if they wanted. And her poems are so frequently sharp and so often quick that we have come to think maybe this is what they are about. That this is what they do.

According to the Griffin Poetry Prize jury’s citation, Short Haul Engine has “wisdom of a severity that we would almost rather not know. A cold person is a different species; there is a dismal companionship in grief, the water stays in the fish, even when the fish is out of the water.” More colloquially, I have a friend who says Solie’s poems are so sharp and knife-like they’re about ready to cut a bitch. In picking up Pigeon, Solie’s latest book, one surely expects to find the same water in the fish, expecting the poems to have the same keen edge.

This, though, is not what we find at all. Let’s look at two passages, one from Short Haul Engine and then one from Pigeon. Here is the end of “I Like You”:

You are a friend,
I think, even though
my hysterical math can’t discern
your sevens from your nines
and we disagree on the function
of a denouement. You said,
only a coward reads the back page first.
Or was that me, dear,
I forget.

Now here is the first stanza of “Tractor” (which I wasn’t going to quote in its entirety but can’t bear to break into pieces), a poem that looms large over Pigeon:

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. What used to take a week
it does in a day on approximately
a half-mile to the gallon. It cost one hundred
fifty grand. We hope to own it outright by 2017.
Few things wrought by human hands
are more sublime than the Buhler Versatile 2360.

The knife is still there (as in the tongue-in-cheek “we hope to own it outright”), though it’s clear this is a different kind of surgery. There’s no quick jab, but something grander in scope. There’s something more considerate in “Tractor,” and in many other poems in Pigeon. It’s no surprise that poets change, and it’s not as if Solie has lost her precision. Take, for example, the end of “Wager”:

The honourable life is like timing. One might not have the talent for it. Take this guy up ahead who’s driven 45 minutes with his turn signal on through this jurisdiction of few exits, as if the hope of a left is all he’s got now in his one chance on this earth.

These poems are still deft, though they’re not poems that will sink their teeth into you. These are not poems that will break skin. And it’s a bit startling that they don’t because after two books it’s what we’ve come to expect. “Wager” is both hopeful and mournful. It’s complicated. Without slighting her previous work, there is something more thoughtful and well-like in lines like “Because once again the part of the mind / called the heart appears on the threshold, / swinging its amnesias before it like a lantern” (“Dog Star”). These poems are perched on that threshold, wherever that is. And what are we to make, then, of Solie’s poem, which once existed on the edge of a knife and now skirts the rim of something — and this word is so inadequate — deeper?

A few years ago, in her review of Jan Zwicky’s Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences, Solie wrote, “All poets, the good ones anyway, develop in the course of their work a philosophy… Philosophy, like light, is not static.” At the Toronto launch for Pigeon, Ken Babstock made mention (in reference to his own work) of how an idea can be taken up and reworked, magnified and added to, until like a ball of elastic bands you come to the end of your life and find that it is an enormous thing, much bigger than when you first picked it up. I don’t want to presume Solie’s philosophy, or even that she sits at her desk with any project in mind larger than the poem at hand. But everyone has their preoccupations, their patterns of thought, and with three books now under her, ahem, wing, we might finally be able to pluck at Solie’s ball of elastics, and what we are plucking at is more than the knife her earlier poems wielded. Given the shift in tone, maybe there is something more to that severe wisdom of Solie’s than the darting, fish-like grief of companionship. That Pigeon doesn’t entirely sound like the Solie we know, that it isn’t always as tight or as curt, suggests there is more to Solie’s poems than how they sound, more than their feint and jab.

For example, in “Science and the Single Girl,” from Modern and Normal, we are told that “x is all that is denied,” and throughout Solie’s first two books we can find a certain low-burnt anger at various x’s. At times, that variable is a physical or relational emptiness, as in the end of Modern and Normal’s “More Fun in the New World,” and perhaps the severe wisdom is a wisdom of the unknown. In Pigeon we again see variables, but this time the voice that inhabits the poems finally acknowledges the unknown for what it is, an unknown, and at times even allows it in: “the variable / when the outcome is unknown, / as always the outcome is unknown” (“X”).

There is a tradition of negative contemplation, rare in Canadian letters, that appears in Pigeon, most tellingly in “An Acolyte Reads The Cloud of Unknowing.” Another poem asks: “What / is this remainder” that sets out “alone / each night to wander freeways’ dangerous / collectors” and “never giving the same name twice?” (“Double”). There are questions asked here in which the bottom drops out. The softness (relative to her two previous collections; Pigeon can hardly be called soft otherwise) belies a deep, hard vein of thought. These new poems at first don’t ring quite as clear, but perhaps that’s because something else entirely has been struck.

I am likely overemphasizing the differences between Solie’s three collections. Of course one book will be different from the next, and if it seems like I am hovering over the shift in voice, it’s only because I was so surprised by it, and then a little stunned at my own surprise. My initial reaction to Pigeon — that this is not the Solie I know — makes me wonder if I, as a reader, am more like the speaker of the aptly titled “Thief” (from Short Haul Engine) than I’d like to admit, that I’ve read her poems saying, “I will take this, and this / and this.”

In coming to Pigeon with certain expectations, in wanting to see my favourite tics and tricks of Solie’s, I risked missing the wide consideration of many of the book’s poems. As Solie says, “if / desire injures the spirit, I am afflicted.” Is desire for a text to read a certain way an affliction, and if so, what does this affliction make us miss? At some point we need to decide what it is we are doing when we read. Caught off-guard by poems that were less razor-sharp than I’d anticipated, I lost sight of the more durable and more important threads that run from one book to the next.

And anyway, as a mode of thought perhaps this consideration (or contemplation) is something Solie’s been working toward for a while now. After all, in the third-last poem of Modern and Normal, we find Simone Weil asking the value of solitude. That book ends on this note: “You believe one idea / and then another. That is, in the instant, at the time.” We can maybe even see the empty chair sitting by a bed in a motel in “More Fun in the New World” as a dinner table set for negative contemplation. If so, we would be wise to attend. And if this is a current that runs through her work, and I think it is, then it is a bigger, more complex and more interesting ball of elastics than the considerable technical skill that crafted the quick, cutting lines of Solie’s first two books.

It is entirely unfair of me to object to what a poem is not doing anyway. Besides, there are other things going on. Poems like “Four Factories,” “Air Show” and maybe even “Tractor” suggest that this could be a more political or activist book. After all, these poems use more direct speech than we are used to seeing from Solie. But that’s not really it, because when the question of what we can afford appears several times, the emphasis is as much on what is being afforded as on the “how much.” And these questions do arise, frequently; they are left open, dangling about this book like a mobile above a child’s crib. In her introduction to The 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, Solie says good poetry can “throw a wrench into habits of thinking and perception.” When I first read Pigeon, I mourned the loss of the leanness I had greatly admired in Short Haul Engine and Modern and Normal. And I think it is too much to assume that Pigeon is a wrench Solie has thought to throw in our minds’ spokes, that her intention was to shake us up with the small but noticeable and telling change in voice. Instead, Pigeon is made up of poems that think differently and are after a different, more considerate perception. There are different tools at work; we should let the wrench do its thing.

Andrew Faulkner is a graduate student. He lives in Toronto.

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