Karen Solie makes inroads and dazzles with her American debut
by Ange Mlinko
I'M THINKING OF a non-heroic poetry. Non-heroic, that is, in the sense that the self-spinning, self-staging protagonist-diva—the lyric “I”—cedes to a role drab, almost anonymous, from the corps. A non-heroic poetry that deflects the reader toward consideration of situations, contexts, and all that is given, inherited, received from a hostile or indifferent world—particularly its language:
Science tells us plants emit signatures and responses
on yet another frequency we cannot hear.
That’s all we need. When little,
we were told our heads were in the clouds.
Now we suspect the opposite.
(“Your News Hour Is Now Two Hours”)
These lines from Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out epitomize the non-heroic, with that vague first person plural, that chatty candor, that two-standard-deviations-above-average-intelligence drollness. Only someone that smart could be that modest.
For decades, John Ashbery has shown us how to be non-heroic (which hasn’t stopped us from pedestalizing him…). There is something both Ashberian and non-Ashberian about Solie. Like him, she writes sentences in motley registers that accrete into poems with unpredictable logopoieic shapes. Their sentences are similarly centrifugal, though hers are never taken to the dissociative extremes his are. He sounds like a radio on scan; she sounds like she’s talking and driving: grounded in time and space, just traversing them fairly fast. She might dabble in loveliness occasionally. The first poem of the book is “Ode,” after all—an ode to spring, though it includes knife sharpeners and hammer claws around a “reno.” “Against Lyric” resists two strains of sweetness: one “contrived from lime Jell-O and Sprite— / colored marshmallows/suspended like pronouns” and the Keatsian paradise where “faces have ceased to change.” Mostly the beauty comes, as it does, off the cuff, as in the ending of “A Good Hotel in Rotterdam”:
Two blocks away
a Tom Cruise import plays
without subtitles in the Pathé
Schouwburgplein bordered by cranes
pulling the new city from the ground, and bars
that draw like water from the air
partiers kitted out in franchise colors.
Nothing really prepares you for that final line, its riot of unusual words (partiers, kitted, franchise, colors) blooming out of the k’s and t’s and r’s of the plainspoken “like water from the air.” So this is poetry in the conventional sense, where language and kineticism and imagery converge deliciously; yet the frankly disenchanted Solie will also remind us that such luxuries are like “natural yellow diamonds from South Africa no one needs, / thus satisfying the criteria for beauty.”
Solie traffics in deflective pronouns—there’s an “I” here, yes (not always the same “I,” though), also an “us,” which may turn even a lone body into a collective—not Whitman’s multitudes, but Democritan atoms:
When I think of it
all my atoms are past-due notices
but with the option to consolidate as one large
debt. The market writes its autobiography
on minds and bodies, my own and those
of my siblings.
The siblings in this poem, “The Living Option,” may be real Solie siblings, but it may also be her generation (the book is dedicated “for my friends”) or all of us, the mayflies of this particular epoch. At any rate there is something repellant to hierarchy in her work, partly to do with the horizontal expansion of the landscape she favors (she grew up in Saskatchewan, and crisscrosses it frequently in the poems), partly with her class affiliations (agriculture, engineering, mechanics are played against the modern city’s financialization—i.e. etherealization—of economies, or WiFi’s related etherealization of speech: “Country has become the countryside…the air is thick with personal messaging.”). Again, and in a different way: non-heroic.
Yet the pathos of her work for me lies in this: her flatness, her engagement, her frankness, yes, her sincerity are underwritten by a singular intelligence that sets her apart and alone. In “Darklands,” we are told, “the mad, heavyhearted / wall, the heartbroken / schizophrenic wall argued all / positions.”
I sat with mobile on the foyer stairs
just inside the door
he stood outside of
speaking into his phone
to a third party, who didn’t matter.
We were a single being split
into primary antagonists
by opposing pairs, and they
by theirs, so two infinite armies—
at odds but constitionally identical—
occupied the field
of this decision.
In keeping with the non-heroic ethic, we don’t know the nature of the drama here—I suspect it’s romantic, but the indirection, the level tone stifles it. The salient thing is that the collective is inside, ramifying, accelerating her isolation in the moments before “this decision,” and furthermore, “My unknown presence / was my weapon.” It is this moment which is reprised everywhere in Solie’s work, every time one sentence reaches out to the next. They are vectors of plural possibilities, never fully dovetailing. But if a perfect fit were to be found, that would not be poetry. The disjunct guarantees an ongoing “living option.” So you live with the pain of continual ramification and off-choices, if you live at all.
How to explain that this is the first of Solie’s four books (three Canadian collections, including a Griffin Prize winner, and one British Selected) to be published in the U.S.? I think she explains it when she jokes: “There is some truth in solipsism, but I fear I’m doing it wrong.” The solipsism in American pobiz stems from its fear of intelligence—give it some dumb notion of duende and it will bumble along merrily for decades—and so, yes, Solie does that wrong. What she does right is poetry.
ANGE MLINKO is poetry editor of The Nation. Her most recent book is Marvelous Things Overheard (2014).