If you happen to go looking for information on Ethernan, the seventh-century hermit who inhabited the Caiplie Caves on Scotland’s Fife coast, you will likely find a few squibs on a Saint Ethernan who died in 875 CE, on the nearby Isle of May, where Vikings rampaged his monastery—now an archaeological site, a cairn where medieval pilgrims deposited some 1.5 million stones to mark his grave. The earlier Ethernan is a much more nebulous figure, writes the Canadian poet Karen Solie: while other martyrs of early Christianity were renowned for “their feats of strength, endurance, and clairvoyance, their animal associates, meteorological interventions, and divinely assisted acts of revenge,” Ethernan “is said to have survived for a very long time on bread and water.” He retreated to the caves to wrestle with the choice of living as a hermit or establishing a priory with other missionaries.
This question—whether to live a contemplative or active (now we might say activist) life—hangs over Solie’s fifth book of poems, which has just been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. It is her first “project book,” in which she collages verse and prose, documentary and lyric, to take on the persona of Ethernan. In the seventh century, the urgency of the question pivoted on the salvation of souls in a rough land, a rough climate; for the ancient Greeks (and for us), the urgency is political. Who can afford the contemplative (or, say, poetic) life if the world is indeed burning (as it often is and has been)? Yet Plato held that the philosopher’s life is the best life, an assertion that depended on a defense of contemplation as the highest virtue.
Solie employs the voice of Ethernan to lend drama and historical breadth to this subtextual question—whether lyrical poetry, too, as a contemplative practice, is worthy of an honorable person living wisely and well in this plasticine Anthropocene. Lyric poetry has long been associated with the voice of a single individual mining her own experience for art, but time and again questions are raised as to the value of such an endeavor. This may be such a time, and this is Solie’s attempt at an answer. That Ethernan is impoverished in every way—in fame, in miracles—ensures the integrity of her enterprise. There will be no spiritual handicapping.
Karen Solie, born in 1966, is a star of Canadian poetry. She had her American debut in 2015 with her fourth collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, but she had already won major awards north of the border for her first three books, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005), and Pigeon (2009). (The Living Option, a selection of her work, was published in the UK in 2013.) Almost nothing prepares the reader of her early books for…
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