KAREN SOLIE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
This is a pale shadow of the piece my computer ate and mangled beyond retrieval.
In my previous post on Karen Solie I made some errors, none more so than in my assessment of the long poem from Pigeon, and republished in The Living Option, her selected poems from 2013, Bloodaxe. The poem in question is Archive.
What is it about this poem? It is the masterly way she weaves, weaves and blends, many-layered subject matter into a whole unified poem.
James Pollock in his essay on Karen Solie, in Arc Poetry Magazine, 2010, writes of her Triple Vision. This, he asserts, is her ‘sardonic satire of contemporary human life’; ‘pastoral vision… clear-eyed respect for nature domesticated or otherwise’; ‘sympathy for other human beings’.
He also brings to our notice her deep and wide reading in literature, an allusiveness to other poetry. In Sturgeon from her first book, he notes how read aloud ‘you’ll hear a subtle but clearly audible undercurrent of Old English verse’ complete with ‘alliterative pairs and triplets.’ The ‘lost lure’ of the poem he reads as a direct reference to the Elizabeth Bishop poem The Fish.
He also notes that her poem Roger the Shrubber is a take on Andrew Marvell’s Damon the Mower.
Of her early poem Sturgeon, he notes, ‘the fish is Christlike, a “sin-eater” to whom people take their “guilts”’, and this brings me to another theme that runs throughout the books, that of a religious awareness. Jacob Pollock specifies it as a Catholic awareness.
She ends her books with brief notes on poem references, and so we get a direct quote from St Augustine in The Vandal Confesses (the note throws open the fields of reference wider, bringing in the Vandal raids in North Africa in which St Augustine perished, and so perhaps a suppressed greater antipathy to her more localised subject matter of the poem), and The Catholic Prayer for the Sick, in Payer for the Sick. In the latest book The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out, 2015, we have reference to the Nag Hammadi Gospels, via William James (in The Living Option).
And in Pigeon we have An Acolyte Reads The Cloud of Unknowing.
What I would like to point out here is that this is no passing ‘colouration’ for the poems, for instance, she really has read the books, and this last book is no mean feat. It is a lengthy and involved medieval religious tract. It demands of the reader, and those demands are time, and willingness to tangle with the arguments that explain the ways of god to man.
As with The Dream of the Rood in the Old English, and The Pearl in middle English (neither of which she references) we enact the experience as we read: they are to an extent sacramental poems, we engage with them, with the time taken to read, understand and appreciate them, as we interact with the arguments and events, and also imaginatively enact.
In a Catholic mass, or service, there is much activity: there are the processions of priests, their robes, the incense, the use of bells, hymns, prayers, much standing and sitting and responding. It is very busy. And as the celebrant engages with all these levels of ceremony, even the intellectual import of the readings, the message is being taken in at deeper levels. And that message is: one must celebrate God’s creation, the world; one must look for the best in man; one must be active in the world, and be aware in life.
We have here the weave of intents that James Pollack identifies in Karen Solie’s triple vision.
I hasten to add her satirical and at times scathing tone is another response to this Catholic background: all struggle with the message in their way, usually there is this element of attempted outright rejection.
The notes are not all so religious, thankfully, and we have direct reference to works by Walter Benjamin, Wittgenstein, J K Galbraith, Hellenistic philosophy, Shakespeare, and then we have references to The Band, R E M, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. There are the painter points too: Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Turner.
James Pollock shows at length Karen Solie’s responses to other poets: Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey is one. Not all are parodies, because she does not hold one angle throughout a poem, they take in many voices, characters, angles and arguments not her own, and some in direct conflict with her own voice and concerns.
Another commentator (can I find it now? No.) wondered if her technique owed something to, or acknowledged, John Ashbery’s deft and skilful blending of voices and sources. Her conclusion was that Karen Solie’s poems are more like the experience of a car journey where multiple conversations weave in and out, where outside matters are always on the periphery, and sometimes intrude , where the driver’s knowledge of her environment ‘both domesticed and otherwise’ comes into play.
This is a pertinent comment, because it brings in that other under-theme of the books, the concern with time, and with the sacramental aspect intact.
And so we return to the long poem Archive, from Pigeon. What is about this poem? There is an omniscient narrator, and she narrates how a ‘she’ interacts with her environment. ‘She’ has to live and work in a city; this city is breached by a river, and work is on the other side, the journey on foot is made every day through a freezing winter. Her camera notes, and the person notes, and the narrator notes. We have the bridge, its history (is there really a workman entombed in the north pillar? Is there a reference here to the Bridge on the Drina?), and we have the city, and the apartment block where ‘she’ lives for the duration, all telescoping into the ‘she’. Women are being killed in the city; a woman student at the university commits suicide from the bridge. This is all part of the time of the poem, and the writer’s memories over a specific period.
With the other long poem in the latest book, we also have a engaging with time. Bitumen leads us to the Alberta tar sands, their stratified historical records, and their modern uses.
Early in the poem she writes, ‘If I don’t come home, is my house in order?’ Already we engage with religious reference.
Bitumen begins and ends considering paintings by Turner. It begins with his magnificent clouds, and ends with his tremendous running seas; in between we transport from old world to new, from new world to modern world. ‘The West stands for relocation, the east/ for lost causes.’ Early on the poem lists, and we hear Anne Carson here, perhaps.
Time and space: ‘Meaning takes place in time.’ she writes, it is the revisionism of intent, purpose: we came West for the new world, and made it – not found it, note – and it is a matter of compromises: ‘Would you conspire to serve tourists in a fish restaurant/ the rest of your life? I thought not.’
Re-affirmation: ‘we’re guests, after all, not prisoners, right?’ receives no reply.
The last Turner paintings noted includes The Slave Ship, another major theme in New World history.
A reviewer wrote of the flat tone of her poems; we can hear it in these instances. What it is, is the voice imparting levels of communication: the ceremonial layered aspect, above.
‘Neither question nor assertion makes sense/ when truth is a tone of voice,’ she writes in Interior. Truth is not rhetorical skill, nor is it communicated through rhetorical skill, it is not political, therefore. We can also draw from this that it is not in the province of classical philosophy either, then. She goes on in this poem: ‘As if I were a wall,/ a former life/ walks through me, each/ modest architectural feature/ an anthology of meanings to which paint/ has been applied. They don’t retain/ traces, that’s in thinking.’
The tone of doubt, of questioning the known, the assertions and at times tomely manner, opens the door to the reader: we are all vulnerable in our way, we know this place she plots out.
She ends, ‘The gardener, after a time,/ feels the garden belongs to him,/ familiar objects extend/ his spirit….’. This poems, as James Pollock says of another poem, ‘instead of merely taking a side… contributes a genuine insight.’ As an historical, psychological, environmental and cultural observation this last line of the poem is an important point: it is what home means.
In a way this last book is slightly chilly, her mastery (what is the women’s equivalent phrase?) of technique and subject matter is superb, but the warmth is becoming lost.
I do admire her work, as you may have guessed, and read and re-read often; and long may it be so.