Lots of poetic grit in this substantial second collection
by Karen Solie. She is a poet who writes with a wry, no-nonsense
intelligence, adept at finding the new perspective in the incidentals of
urban living. She's also highly literate, as likely to quote from Augustine
or Wittgenstein as from song or instruction manual (see the notes section at
the end of the book). And there's absolutely nothing fey about her. Her style
is less soaring epiphany than the quick, rueful duck-and-dive of someone who
knows their own way around language. Here's the second stanza of 'Trust Me',
showcasing Solie's often predominantly monosyllabic shrug through her lines -
gruff consonantal echoes pulling you along:
ride thin rails across the grid, noise
indecision at the stops. When to get on. When
to get off.
How much time there is to kill
and how much
money is enough. Wise up to the rule.
squatting on the track between yes,
of course I
will and you fool, you fool.
At lot of the early poems in Modern and Normal explore a twilight territory
of broken liaisons, a makeshift motel world where things are 'germy and
contingent' ('You Never Know'). Tenderness, though, occasionally breaks
through bleak cycles of thought. For example in the beautiful, refrain-rich
'Untitled': 'I took his hand, simply, and reached across the words I'd left
behind./ I'm still young. It's been years since I thought the morning kind'.
Solie's language may be plain, but it's fresh: 'Moonlight maybes/ up the
streets' in 'Three in the Afternoon'; and linguistically playful too:
'Lonely/ as a preposition, you long for the thrust/ of an accusative world' in
'Love Song of the Unreliable Narrator'. Alongside this wit, there is a sense
of generosity, and humour, in the way so much of our ostensibly pedestrian
language can yield poetry in itself, when held up at the right (/wry/wrong)
angle to the light. 'Found' poetry proper stakes its claim throughout this
collection, from the overheard bar conversation (check out the porcupine
incident in 'Found: Bruce. After Last Call') to the increasingly surreal
'Self-Portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations' ('a tendency/ toward
unsubstantiated leaps') to simple textbook cut-up:
How pure is
the typical raindrop? Explain why there is some truth to the proverb
cold to snow.'
- this from the precise and meteological 'Found: Problems (A Meditation)'.
Then of course there is the fallibility of human communication: of seeing
primarily what we expect to see. 'This is the problem/ of heart
failure: the initiation and progression/ of desire. Pardon me. I've misread. That last word is/ disease.' ('The Problem of Heart Failure').
But this book is too edgy to leave you merely amused. Solie's raw awareness
of the fragility of language unsettles one's sense of self, or sense of
safety in any sort of structure. 'Bomb Threat Checklist', a poem spun more
loosely from found phases, exposes this fragility:
Do not trust
ordinary. Anything you use
a doorknob, a
shoe, a telephone. Are you aware
of what could
cause it to explode? Every day
we make our
idle progress among tripwire.
It is the uneasy vocation of the poet (this poet, anyway) to live with the
shifting quasi-algebraic knowledge of how 'a twitchy something lies/ beneath
those crossbeams for which xs
on the eyes/ stand in' ('Science and the Single Girl'); to wrestle with 'the
truth/ beyond the equal sign' though it is both uncertain and elusive.
'Cipher Stroke' takes this notion one step further in a direction that is
both lyrical and nihilistic. A quotation from John Kenneth Galbraith prefaces;
he discusses cases of the 'stroke' in which the only symptom is 'a desire to
write endless rows of ciphers' (is this in fact what I do when I try to write
poems?). The five sections of this poem dance with their own negation. From
the first line, where 'India opened zero and the gods crawled out,' nothing
is at the heart of everything.
body of what is, sings an unbroken tone struck
in the key of
nil. This endless untitled exclamation
from everywhere at once.
The consolation that 'Modern and Normal' offers in the face of this
underlying void is ultimately one of life itself rather than of philosophy.
'We are lonely, we/ are here', she says in 'Under the Sun'. One lives, at
least in the present. And life can even come into a weird focus of its own at
critical moments ('the weighted moment/ buckling into consequence' in
'Determinism'). 'Seven Days', another of the more lyrical sequences, explores
this take on creation. Although Solie is more likely to use verbal skill than
simile, there is a striking simile here - sudden, visceral:
city so anxiously made up,
swans seem a
deliberate act. Best to be in love
as is the
gauge with what it measures:
blown, then left alone.
Best to let life amaze you, and let go: a kind of epiphany, after all. The very last poem, 'Everything's
Okay', offers us the same tentative wisdom: 'Say Roncevalles until you buy
that bit// about beauty in ugliness, under oath as you are to living/ for the
moment, uncut, blow by blow.' This is a kind of existential resolution; but
so much more, too, heightened as it is in this collection by Solie's
refractive prism of linguistically strong and (one can't help but feel) authentically
lived poetry. Buy this book, then - and make sure you keep hold of it.
© Sarah Law 2007