Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Poetic World of Karen Solie

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The Poetic World of Karen Solie

By Jon Eben Field

“All we come up with are gestures towards answers.” - Karen Solie, 14/11/2008

In June of last year, I met Karen Solie at a friend's wedding in Northern Ontario. At the time, I did not know who she was. I did not know about her as a poet. I recall asking what she did. There followed an uncomfortable silence and then the words, “I write.”

Solie's debut collection, Short Haul Engine, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second book, Modern and Normal, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. She has also served on the Griffin Poetry Prize committee and is a faculty member at the Banff Centre for the Arts and the Sage Hill Writing Experience. She has been writer-in-residence at both the University of New Brunswick and the University of Alberta. Her third book, Pigeon, was released in April, 2009.

Short Haul Engine

After reading Solie's books, I recognized an affinity with her poetic world. There was a connection between what I read and what I already knew. I suspect this is how many feel after encountering Solie's poems for the first time. The disarmingly stark brilliance shining within her poetry reminds us deep down of where we come from, the varied contexts of our lives and the ways we are both drawn to and thrown into this world with its particular relationships and myriad landscapes.

Solie's lyrics invite us in. They make us see and feel and be within the intellectual and emotional landscape of the poem. Then with an uncanny and razor-sharp precision, the same lyrics show us our own reflection. And we realize we are alone. Solie's language tantalizes us with understanding and community while, at the same time, it forces us into a spectacular solitude. Togetherness and apartness exist in simultaneity and clarity in her poems. But this doubleness is not paradoxical as poetry is not limited by the exclusionary divisions of an either/or logic. Solie's metaphors, resonances and connections embody the complexity and beauty of writing through the layers of both/and.

In Solie's poems, we find both vast prairie landscapes spanning the depth of ecological space and time and tiny Chekhovian plays occurring in almost empty bars at happy hour. Solie works as a muralist creating grand-scale landscapes and as a miniaturist focused on the smallest connective meanings of words. Landscapes and how we describe them have a profound influence on us, our communities, our memories and our existences. Our landscapes shape us just as we shape our landscapes. When I interviewed Solie, she said, “Landscape affects everyone. It is the lens through which we measure time and space. My particular experience has been growing up in a rural place.” Even though Solie experienced her young life in the rural environment of southwestern Saskatchewan, she clarified that it is “not a wilderness.” Because of the scale of agriculture and oil exploration, she experienced the landscape “as very industrial” and pervaded with “machinery.”

In this way, the prairie loses any simple romantic vision of unadulterated nature. The sweep of the grasslands has been transformed by years of massive agro-business and oil well expansion. By showing both the beauty of the land and the scars we have inscribed upon it, Solie's poems force us to recognize our complicity in the world's current state and allow us to remain hopeful. Solie feels that writing “is an act of hope.” The transformative power of language is embodied in the choices we make because, as she is aware, “there has to be that counterweight of hope or all is lost.”

The redundancy of writing, “Good lyric poetry sings” is not lost on me. Yet I feel it necessary to point out that Solie's lyrics sing. They call out with the rhythms, melodic tones and resonances of the land. Her words ring as part of our bodies, our experiences and, inevitably, our dust and dirt. The ecological destruction and transformation of our landscapes, as well as the lives and habits of our towns and cities are sewn into the page.

In Solie's work, cities are escaped from, passed through and lived in as way-stations. Cities have lives similar to their denizens. The bars, airports, hotels and buildings of a city are the backdrop for relationships embroiled with the history and complications of life. These trailing narratives are remembered with a tense grip; in some, an earnest desire to recall the past offers hope, while for others, forgetting offers escape. In the end, Solie's poetics of abundance gesture at the interwoven strands of fate and freedom in the fabric of life.

Solie's poems open meaningful connections and avenues of fruitful connection, but we are encouraged to both identify and disappear. The poem "Norway," from Pigeon, ends:


It seems I send my thoughts out to someone on a distant shore
who doesn't exist. It keeps me company.
There's no harm in it.

Solie knows that language is not adequate to experience and perception. This lack between experience and articulation creates a “mourning in the use of language.” Although this mourning can emphasize the inadequacy of words, for her, this gap is fruitful as a source of inspiration. Using this inspiration grounds her poems in the precision of naming; naming the complexity and intensity of experience creates a generative power. For Solie, “there's a poetry to the names that people give things” largely because “we are metaphorical creatures.”

Solie uses her words to point out the representational crisis at the limit of language. She is acutely aware of language's fey shadow, that unnameable space where the poet exists with and without words. Poetry reviews, revitalizes and recreates the world. We can learn to see the world differently, time and time again through poems. She understands that poetry “allows us to notice things and to think about their complications and their implications.”

Solie is fascinated with the intersections of probability, determinism and fate. She sculpts the waves of determined reactions that arise from action and choice into poetic friezes. She is intuitively, spiritually and mathematically engaged with the “old split, which is sort of artificial to [her] mind, between free will and determinism.” We are both drawn to and thrown into this poetic world. We are free to explore our lives and thrown like flotsam and jetsam into the vast ocean of life's consequences.

In the possibility of both/and in Solie's lyrics, we discover that free will and determinism co-exist peacefully and painfully. In both of these modalities, we are struck with an aching bitter-sweet beauty. Consider for a moment, the emotional resonances in "Geranium," when the pot refuses its seedling:

Modern and Normal

It seemed needlessly cruel
that I couldn't coax even the hardiest,
homeliest, dullest of plants to grow
in the one west-facing window
of that place,

but still gives birth to:

that unexpected flowering
inside the cheap circumference
of the pot while I was nearly
bedridden, of seeds borne on a broad wind
that flew in, and volunteered.

Solie's uses language to point out what is passed over, forgotten and lost. And in that gesture we become aware of the abundance that is and is not on the page. Reading poetry requires a type of double-vision. If we are lucky, the words of the poem open up a space for us to inhabit a verbal texture. But this interior world of the poem only makes sense when understood next to the world within which we live, breathe, eat, sleep, drink, speak and write. But how can she accomplish this? In her words, the gesture is completed by “throwing one's mind outside the page.”

Poetry matters. There are songs I've always believed poets could hear above, below, beyond or, perhaps more accurately, within the din of ordinary life. In that belief, I've looked for poetry that hears and responds to what would otherwise lie hidden in the world. Karen Solie's poetry matters because it sings an eloquent version of this song about life, landscape and language.

Jon Eben

Jon Eben Field lives in St. Catharines, Ontario and works as a writer, editor and teacher. He has published work in The National Post, PRISM international and Pulse Niagara. A passionate devotee of excellent music, Sichuan cooking and Flaubert, he is happiest when with his wife and daughter. He can be found online at: and

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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