Posts Tagged ‘Canadian poetry’


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 homeis 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.

Karen Solie: ks


The first impressions were impressive.

Then to start from the beginning and soak in the work: the author’s own selected poems of THE LIVING OPTION, Bloodaxe books, 2013.


The early work begins with ‘SHORT HAUL ENGINE’, 2001.

Early writing always demands certain adjustments from the later, the work you’d really tuned into. 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:‎.


The second poem in of the selection, JAVA SHOP, FORT MACLEOD, and we come across a ‘horse killing plant’ as she travels the highways of hot flat plains, 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 morality. 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 avoided. In its way, this is also a very American trait, as is her travelling, road persona, in the 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, 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…. 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 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….

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’. We hear the ‘a’ of tap and gas, quite clearly, which raises the question of pronunciation: central plains Canadian differs in many and subtle ways from central plains USA

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.


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, how the meditator’s eye sees all but is not ensnared by what it sees. Unless one continually tops-up by practice it becomes difficult to sustain, that detachment. It can so easily become to seem as uncaring. In all this heritage of the beat poets lingers long.

Does this 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 each better for what it is? 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.

Imagine being blind in a land wide open with light! Not only would walls and fences be distant, but sound different. Karen Solie examines the nature of her work as visual depiction: the photographer is as much a product of the photographer’s sensibility, make-up, and the accidents of physical-mental misalignment, as of craft. We are dynamic beings in fields of energy that are mostly benign; there are some we have realigned into malicious fields.


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 over 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 unit, 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.

The Red Element by Catherine Graham
The Debaucher by Jason Camlot

Insomniac Press, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA

The two poets reviewed complement each other in strange ways. Both books are the author’s third collections, and both are part of the education faculties of Canadian Universities.

Insomniac Press, based in Toronto, is a glorious publishing venture. The books are wonderfully presented, lovingly made and very attractively produced. Catherine Graham has gone for a simplified design of three-quarter length illustration, an evocative painting by Caryl Williamson, in rusty reds and worn-slate blues above simple, pared-back title and name.
Jason Camlot’s cover is very rich, a highly decorative border and scroll work in gold over a black background. The central image is very striking and wryly humorous: The Debaucher is exemplified by a clip from a painting: a hearty dose of cold water over a naked man crouched in a sauna setting.

The Red Element is a very pared-back book; all the poems are stripped to their essentials of subject matter and structure. So much so that some poems are a mere four lines in length; and yet they all work wonderfully.
Throughout the book we discern childhood and growth into womanhood, complete with responsibilities of parenthood, and its reflections back and forth to one’s own parents and onto one’s own children.
The poems on young girlhood are intricate yet robust vignettes. What especially strikes is how the stripped-back approach allows the writer to handle unsexualised, prepubertal experience: the little girl as a little girl: ‘The pigtailed girl plays in the middle of her long front yard,/ pale legs stilt under the cotton stickiness of her dress./She turns from her asphalt shadow and pulls the red ball/ from her pocket and peels the white price tag like a scab//Drop and catch/drop and catch.//Suddenly the ball rabbits up the slope./ It rolls back like a trick to the edge of the crescent./ She runs to the edge of the neck-high hedge/that she’s been told never to pass, and stops.//I want to be good at this/I want to be good.’ (Drop and Catch)

This is a very difficult achievement, and perhaps only possible by stripping back and stripping back so that the images ring clear as a bell.
The stilt legs and dress become: ‘Spaghetti straps hook my bare white shoulders./ Crinoline lace scratches my naked thighs…’.(Vintage). A much more sexualised image; the imagery of this piece also reflects a more teenage awareness, and of one’s place in the family and world. The adult world in turn is a lived-in place: ‘I see that elf. The doodle you were doing/the summer your dad and I split up.// the eyes, the red crosses. With eyes/ like that, how could she see anything?’ (Doodle).

Some commentators find modern women’s writing lacking in abstract thought, concentrating on the body, the immediate. I would suggest they look to the implicit approach of the poems. As here, the thought goes into the approach and choice of subject matter and treatment. So that in the latter part of the book we perhaps get the impression it is the theory that is now addressing us: ‘I often dream of terrible ponds,/ frogs the size of Jack Russells……………and when my eyes//look back at me, deeper pupils pulse/like passing sails, strips of mist/ clouding the bars in the water. Mother/ I’m here, Mother. Mother, I’m here now.’ (The Terrible Pond).

The Debaucher is a device, like a spirit of misrule, for allowing the writer to shift frames of reference: ‘The debaucher is not necessarily/ a person. It can be a memory,/ or the absence of compelling/ memory, or deliberately selective/ memory. It can be fear/ because fear keeps us from choosing…….’. (The Debaucher part 3). In part 5 we are more implicitly in Debaucher territory: Maybe he’s with me, but how can I know?/ If, when you are forty years old,/ attempting to finish/ a poem about being led astray,/ and you get a call from your childhood friend/ who’s ditching work………’
What follows is very a much slacker poem. The writing is much more open-armed, explicit in its concerns, whereas the previous writing was implicit in its concerns, and to a certain extent exclusive in its range.

Jason Camlot has a wonderful way with formal structures; nearly half the book is taken up with the sonnet form: the ADIOS SONNETS. He also has a gift for ballad: ‘When my soul flies east down the Metropolitan/ Towards those of Leonard Cohen and Oscar Peterson,/ Aldo Nova and Corey Hart/ Get my corpse a seat at the back of the 80 bus/ (use the transfer attached herein for that purpose),/ Send it down L’avenue Du Parc’. (Petition to Be Entombed at St. Viatuer Bagel – to the tune of “Supplique por etre enterre sur une plage de Sete” by George Brassens.)
He has crazy takes on poems by Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine as well as The Song of Roland, and even this as a Peanuts cartoon.

Whereas Catherine Graham is a poet of the intimate voice, the treasured, internalised experience, Jason Camlot is delightfully wayward; he is an intelligent writer, and at times overly prolix, but ultimately enjoyable. A Jewish background, and Francophile awareness, adds an edge to the mix.