The Truth Beyond the Equal Sign

Modern and Normal, Karen Solie
(86pp, $17CDN, Brick Books)

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:

     Streetcars ride thin rails across the grid, noise
     and 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.
     It's fierce, 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
    'It's too 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 your sense
     of the ordinary. Anything you use
     can turn against you:
     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.

     ÉSilence, the breath
     inside the body of what is, sings an unbroken tone struck
     in the key of nil. This endless untitled exclamation
     implicit and 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:

     Against the city so anxiously made up,    
     swans seem a deliberate act. Best to be in love
     as is the gauge with what it measures:
     shaken, flooded, 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