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 the turn she has taken in The Caiplie Caves—that is, if you took the author of “modern and normal” at her word. She was, first of all, the consummate poet of the Trans-Canadian Highway and the farming communities of southwestern Saskatchewan, where she was raised. Among her paeans to her native land is the bus poem, “Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way”:
this have-not province
with its per-capita demographic representation
of unfortunates, poor earners, procrastinators,
the criminal element, hammering away
at the dullest stretch of highway
Another is “Tractor,” describing her family’s Buhler Versatile 2360, a 23,945-pound, 360-horsepower behemoth: “What used to take a week/it does in a day on approximately/a half-mile to the gallon.” This is what a contemporary georgic sounds like: a tradition going back to Virgil now had Solie positioned at the frontier, describing farm machinery and fracking leases.
For Solie, the epic grandeur of the northern plains was inseparable from coke stacks and blast furnace pipes, tractor trailers, ships, and above all cars (“jerry-rigged cardboard gaskets/and pantyhose fanbelts”), fuel pumps, fibrillating helicopters, and firearms. Solie admitted to an interviewer, somewhat sheepishly, that she had shot .22s, repeating an adage that on the farm a rifle is “not a weapon, it’s a tool.” That belied her own poem “Staying Awake,” whose wives must hide the ammunition during suicide season: “Fall is the time for it./Harvest done,/insurance paid up.”
Drilling further down into the sweeping landscape of factories, casinos, drugstores, quonset huts, and bars, the “SADLight Super-Store” and port refineries, one necessarily comes to the people who operate and inhabit them. Besides the suicidal farmers and bus-riding lowlifes and frumps, there were the woebegone adulterers and addicts worthy of a Denis Johnson poem, and indeed some lines from America’s bard of the hard-up Midwest stood as an epigraph to Short Haul Engine. But where Johnson was a full-blown romantic, Solie casts a jaundiced feminine eye on the populace, particularly the men, whose speech she either ventriloquizes or captures verbatim to hair-raising effect: “You don’t know who to trust? Then don’t./Trust technology. It wouldn’t send/machinery to Mars then…plant/cancer mushrooms in your balls.” In “Found: Bruce. After Last Call,” from Modern and Normal, Bruce from Thursday’s Bar in Victoria monologues: “It was fun. Got us out of Lethbridge./We used to drive to Raymond/to beat up their quarterback.”
There are mordant glimpses of a certain kind of woman, too: “The girls/share a table, each pitying the others their looks,/their men, their clothes, their lives.” In the words of an exerciser in “Cardio Room, Young Women’s Christian Association”: “I sweat it out with the smug one-party/affability of a sport utility/vehicle.” And then there are the love poems that have the air of a garage filling up with carbon monoxide: “We met, that’s all./If coincidence has a law/it’s lonely.” Another word for coincidence is “luck,” and her women have it in spades: “The waitress has a bruise/on her cheek. Walls here/are made of luck and girls/walk into them.” If these lines aren’t among the most whiplashing in contemporary poetry, I don’t know what are. Solie’s “ears of a safe-cracker,/sniper’s eyes” are not for the faint of heart.
What I’ve been sketching here is the foreground of the typical Solie poem from her first three books. But there’s a background as well: a background of reading. The other epigraph to Short Haul Engine, besides Denis Johnson, is from the classicist poet Anne Carson; the endnotes of her books reference a range of thinkers, from Plato, Isaac Newton, and Wittgenstein to Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, and Pascal (Solie minored in philosophy as an undergraduate). This and subsequent books may also reference scuba-diving manuals and journals of overland expeditions from the nineteenth century. Beginning with Modern and Normal, one gets a glimmer of Marianne Moore’s habit of appropriating found language from guides and pamphlets.
An affinity with the poetry of Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, certainly, is evident as early as “Sturgeon,” a rewriting of Bishop’s “The Fish,” which descends from Moore’s “The Fish.” In her version, Solie narrates the story of teenagers tormenting a beached sturgeon, “a lost lure in his lip”:
On an afternoon mean as a hook we hauled him
up to his nightmare of us and laughed
at his ugliness…
The imagery, not to mention the sounds—the h’s and l’s and f of hook and haul, lost and laughed—echo Bishop’s held, half, hook, fast: “I caught a tremendous fish/and held him beside the boat/half out of water, with my hook/fast in a corner of his mouth.”
Solie: “Ancient grunt of sea.” Bishop: “He hung a grunting weight.” Solie: “soft sucker mouth opening,/closing on air that must have felt like ground glass.” Bishop: “His eyes…of old scratched isinglass.” Solie: “his body’s quiet armour.” Bishop: “His lower lip…grim, wet, and weapon-like” (and the “lost lure in his lip,” above, is surely a misprision of “his lower lip”).
But in a reversal of Bishop’s poem, the teenagers don’t have an epiphany and “let the fish go.” Solie’s fish, quite by surprise, leaps back into the river, preempting the self-congratulation that accompanies poetic epiphany. Solie’s narrator is startled into respect for “the old current he had for a mind.” Aside from this telling difference, it’s clear that Solie owes her model of descriptive writing to Bishop, as well as a shared attraction to industrial detritus, edgelands, and entropy. Think of Bishop’s “Filling Station”: “oil-soaked, oil-permeated/to a disturbing, over-all/black translucency.”
Published six years after the Griffin Prize–winning Pigeon, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is an evolutionary leap. While writing from the same landscape, references to math and physics and epistemology transform what was predominantly scenic into something more philosophical; the narratives become less anecdotal, the jokes subtler; the voice, while still colloquial, perfects a friendly though impersonal tone, more “we” than “I,” as in the title poem:
The perspective is unfamiliar.
We hadn’t looked back, driving in,
and lingered too long
at the viewpoint. It was a prime-of-life
experience. Many things we know
by their effects: void in the rock
that the river may advance, void
in the river that the fish may advance,
helicopter in the canyon
like a fly in a jar, a mote in the eye,
a wandering cause.
This opening serves as a deep dive—head-first, cerebral to a fault—into who knows what: the narrator’s soul? Internal weather? Stream of consciousness, with a reminder of the natural metaphor in the term? Once a poet of place, Solie was now, relocated to Toronto, a poet of the displaced. It was not unreasonable to think landscape was now internalized completely, described less from a Bishop-like bird’s-eye view than an Ashberian linguistic dimension:
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.
This conversational but abstract pluralism is the sound of a person stepping aside from herself, getting out of her own way. At the same time, the poems are more existentially wistful, self-deprecating: “That’s all we need.” Registers of mirth and terror mingle like the discovery of a new musical chord change:
Where land ended
and the water began was indiscernible,
though I was not afraid. Because I didn’t know
what I was seeing.
“Wrap Party,” a wry evocation of an introvert at a soiree, is the sort of poem that in an earlier book would have been written with acerbity; in this new style, Solie writes with a gentler wit: “Inattention wounds her. Hence, her bandage dress.” The last line places special emphasis on the double meaning of “wasted,” and is careful to include the poet herself:
There are those you’d rather walk in on in the shower than see dance.
But there are good people everywhere, really lovely.
Each of us absolutely wasted, in our own way.
Why was I so convinced, reading that, that there was an ecclesiastical import to “wasted”? Something of the spirit hovers over the book: “Roof Repair and Squirrel Removal” ends with the wreckage of the eponymous squirrel’s attic nest littered on the lawn: “Shreds of paper,/insulation, twigs from the smoke bush, and the bitter/broken wood of the invasive tree of heaven.” That’s no metaphor: there is a real invasive plant called tree of heaven, as well as a smoke bush, reminiscent of Genesis and Exodus, respectively. And in “A Western,” Solie locates the invisible at the intersection of tautology and oxymoron: “Above the harbour a gull creates flight/as flight has created him. He arises/and results from his work./He is the circle that violates logic./That’s where his soul is.”
But perhaps the question most exquisitely calibrated to the concerns of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out emerges when Solie’s speaker asks, in a line cut from the final version, “Do we impose pattern/or rehearse it in our being?” This is the perfect agnostic’s conundrum, and it reaches its acutest, most poignant note when it is recapitulated in “Spiral,” an elegy for a friend’s death by suicide or overdose. The metaphor refers to a seashell, but it also puns on the addict’s “downward spiral”: “You hadn’t developed around a midpoint, and fell to the side.”
…That day I’d walked the beach,
picking up shells, their spirals of Archimedes and logarithmic
spirals, principle of proportional similarity that protects
the creature and makes it beautiful. Sandpipers materialized
through tears the wind made, chasing fringes of the rising tide.
At first there were two, then three appeared, but when I began
to pay attention I realized they were everywhere.
This mournful but exhilarating ending is wrought of the suspicion that even if patterns are imposed by our minds on the natural world, the joy this gives rise to is the reward for paying attention—and joy isn’t subject to burdens of proof.
Though this is only an inkling of transcendence, it does move grief beyond the stasis suggested by earlier lines: “The night you’ve entered now has no lost wife in it, no daughter,/no friends, betrayal, or fear…I would like to think it peace, but suspect it isn’t anything.” Maybe it isn’t. But for the living poet, there is still the hope of “develop[ing] around a midpoint,” staying balanced and staying sane. Could this be the practice of poetry, an extension of our power to impose or rehearse pattern? Or is it something more? It slowly dawns on the reader of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out that the former poet of truck-stop maps is now navigating by the stars.
In The Caiplie Caves, displacement is taken a step further: Solie performs a legerdemain of time and space and personal identity to grapple with the current political reality. The closest approximation I can think of is something like Seamus Heaney’s North, whose sequence of desolate landscape poems uses the figures of excavated bog people of northern Europe to allegorize Ireland’s unspeakable civil strife. As a project book, The Caiplie Caves presents itself as a unified narrative with a double narrator, Solie/Ethernan, contemplating human bondage to nature both within and without. Unlike most project books (or long poems in general, even though Poe denied there was such a thing), Solie does not dispense with the stand-alone lyric, and she does not create dull stretches of narrative information. The intensity of language is extraordinarily sustained.
The book wanders along the Scottish coast where the Firth of Forth empties out into the North Sea, sometimes around the villages of Crail and Pittenweem, sometimes at the Caiplie Caves (or, as the locals call them, the Coves), sometimes navigating the choppy seas to May, an island nature preserve five miles out. It is, as the cliché goes, an unforgiving landscape of roughness in water and rock, but rich in diversity of birdlife. In passages where Solie seems to interleave her world and the ascetic Ethernan’s, we are meant to realize that in geological time, very little separates the seventh and twenty-first centuries:
Our culture is best described as heroic.
Courageous in self-promotion, noble
in the circulation of others’ disgrace,
its preoccupation with death in a context of immortal glory
truly epic, and the task becomes to keep
the particulars in motion
lest they settle into categories whose opera
is bad infinity.
Solie takes on Ethernan’s persona in soliloquies that are right-margin-justified. But her left-margin-justified poems in her own voice aren’t distinguished by any particular device or trope: anachronisms are embedded in both locations, where melancholy and atrocity and environmental degradation coincide. Like its landscape, it’s a chilly read, bereft of appeasement or good humor. Rarely has Solie unleashed such a full-throated snarl:
This performance of “I Want My Fucking Money”
broadcast live from the street will conclude
when the last human being on earth
And rarely has she sounded more anguished or penitent:
in this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape
thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice
…will my fulfilment be the fulfilment of an error?
an error at the foundation of my life, an error burning in its stove…
What The Caiplie Caves loses in comedy, it gains in beauty: the sublime kind, pitiless and magisterial. Woken at the crack of dawn by a gaggle of fledgling shags on the roof, Solie conjures this language:
What night-collector conveniently forgot
her bag of demons on the neighbour’s roof?
Cackling softly over the stick tool of 4 a.m.,
loosening the drawstring with clothy knee
and elbowings, they’d pop out shaking the dregs
from their hackles, consumed by evil
laughter, ahistorical croaks, benthic creaks,
then shrieks and howling underscored
by homuncular medieval babies in sotto voce,
declamations via voice prosthetic, robot
pet sounds, and I lay there cursing them, the whole
family, though I had nothing to be up for.
Solie’s powers of description have never been so acute, her senses so greedy: seeing, as usual, entropy and prolificity in a race against each other, she takes long walks in the countryside with her eyes on her feet: “bindweed and ox-eye daisy, cranesbill, harebell,//hare’s-foot clover” in “A Plenitude,” and in the marvelous “A Miscalculation”:
Like a king from a promontory
the kestrel presides from an updraft, an array
of barely perceptible movements sustaining
balance and attention, and the woodmouse,
the shrew, the secondary characters,
know whose watch they’re under. There are no
bystanders among them. The razorbill’s piety
winters at sea, secular and medium-sized,
black above, white below; while
frontloaded with military tech
gannets send tones of the aquatic scale
straight to the emotional signature clusters…
Solie’s favorite device may be a Rilkean anthropomorphism, a habit of reversing subject and object. Things have selves in her world, or, as she puts it, “things maintain their professional secrecy.” “The scenery interprets us/and we are also the hyper-vigilant scenery”; “a modest commemorative monument/With its back to the sea”; “I saw stones become a church…I saw trees turn into ships.” The Isle of May is a “thorn in the sea”; elsewhere, “its resting heart rate is very low.” “Rock spoke/through its forms//the eulogy: the smaller/is not the lesser stone.” In solitude, the poet’s mind calls forth companions from the air; Orpheus too was said to make the stones leap up.
Her argument for hermeticism versus community, or poetry versus activism, is delicately fabricated through images and tropes that only acts of equally delicate attention can uncover and assess: If it is true that we are in danger of “symbols,/allegorical forms, language/signifying less and less/though very slowly,” then isn’t it imperative that poets, and by extension readers, fight back by these acts of extreme attention, which by definition demand quietude? In my vain attempts to research Ethernan, I consulted Saint Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and, reading his account of the life of the Irish bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne, I learned that “discretion” was “the mother of the virtues.” “Discretion” was the early Christian term for spiritual insight, and in tandem with the meaning it has for us today—“the faculty of discernment”—it can stand in for what Solie is trying to accomplish using her eyes, her language: she is on a quest for discretion. Might it be worth extolling the virtue of discretion and discernment at a moment in history when all we have thought of as civilized—rationality, technology, surplus wealth, quantitative data—has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe, and possibly a totalitarian surveillance state?
Like Ethernan, Solie would deny that she works miracles. I beg to differ. The very last poem, satisfyingly enough, is called “Clarity,” and it ends almost on a note of despair:
Much of what I feared then
though not always
as I’d feared.
And so much more to fear
than I’d imagined.
But then it pivots:
On an afternoon beneath
the Quiraing, we watched
the gannets dive,
looked from the cliff edge
straight through the clear water
to the origins of variety.
Such language eludes the clichés of genre—“nature writing,” “spiritual journey,” “personal epiphany” ad nauseam—with the swerving, surprising noun “variety.” Harking back to the earlier “A Plenitude,” Solie invokes a principle neither expressly theological nor scientific. Variety—the joy and awe in that buoyant word is palpable, and calls to mind not just animalcules and insects and spawn but vegetable and mineral forms, colors, textures, and striations—everything, in a word, and all the words for it that want saying.