by Jim Johnstone
from Poetry, October 2015
When Michael Hofmann pronounced Karen Solie "one by whom the language lives" in the London Review of Books, he suggested that it would be reductionist to qualify her as a Canadian poet. At the time he was reviewing her UK debut, The Living Option, a volume of selected poems published by Bloodaxe Books in 2013. Hofmann's assertion—repurposed from Joseph Brodsky's praise for the Australian Les Murray, now a global figure—speaks to the universal appeal of Solie's work, but also raises questions about the perniciousness of literary borders. In Canada, Solie's first three books are revered, in large part thanks to Pigeon (2009), which won the Griffin Poetry Prize. She's now a member of the Griffin Trust, but despite the international ambitions of the award, it wasn't until Solie published outside of Canada that she saw her reputation surge to match the quality of her work. Benefitting from foreign distribution, The Living Option helped catapult Solie across the Atlantic where it was lauded in the Guardian, named a book of the year by The Independent, and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In this sense, Solie's retrospective was a test run for her American debut, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, which was published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US) and House of Anansi Press (Canada) this past spring. They sport different covers, but both jackets bear Hofmann's endorsement, claiming Solie for readers everywhere, regardless of nationality.
Yet borders are clearly on Solie's mind. She opens The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out with a "Blue jay vocaliz[ing] a clash on the colour / wheel," conjuring suburban Ontario where "tulip heads [are] removed one by one // with a sand wedge." While blue jays are endemic to the eastern and central United States as well as southern Canada, to Solie they represent her adopted city of Toronto, serving as the mascot of Toronto's major league baseball team. As if she were drawing up a list, she continues,
in the frequency. Expectations are high.
There's a reason it's called the nervous
system. Someone in bed at 11 a.m.
impersonates an empty house. The sharpener's
dragged his cart from the shed. His bell
rings out from the twelfth century
to a neighbourhood traumatizing
food with dull knives. A hammer claws
to the edge of a reno and peers over. Inching
up its pole, a tentative flag. And the source?
Oh spring, my heart is in my mouth.
Titled "Ode," this poem sets the tone for the first half of the book with its restless prosody and non sequiturs. In keeping with Solie's conventions, "Ode" also defies the traditional expectations of its form—instead of writing in praise of something tangible, Solie opts for jump cuts, moving quickly between images until she finds joy in what's next. Her emotions are direct, almost manic, or as she puts it: "There's a reason it's called the nervous / system." "Ode" makes for a pointed introduction, allowing Solie to assert her identity while acknowledging the pressure of writing for a larger audience. She accomplishes this without breaking the fourth wall, before finally exhaling "Oh spring, my heart is in my mouth."
Despite the palpable sense of anticipation that makes "Ode" one of the highlights of the book, by and large Solie sticks to the formula that brought her success in Pigeon and Modern and Normal (2005). Thematically, there's a familiar mix of existential doubt, hard luck, and nomadism in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, all hallmarks of her best work. There's also a pervading air of social anxiety that contributes to Solie's accessibility, particularly in the current global climate. But cultural markers like SAD lights and a distrust of "Google, Earth's invisible pervert" aren't the only secrets to her overarching success. What makes Solie different from most English-speaking poets is that her work moves with a speed that's uncommon among serious practitioners of the art. Solie takes chances and expects her readers to keep up with her poetry's incongruous, and aphoristic, leaps. If it weren't for a brilliant command of the language, the rabble of philosophers (Walter Benjamin, William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein), artists (Jack Chambers, Mark Rothko), and musicians (Nick Cave, The Jesus and Mary Chain) that pervade The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out might feel out of place. But Solie's carefully controlled unpredictability suits her subject matter and makes her poetry seamless despite its narrative dichotomies. Along with her trademark economy of scale, this has enabled Solie to transcend literary borders in both the US and the UK.
Long-term fans will be familiar with much of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, owing to the fact that twenty-six of the poems previously appeared The Living Option, rubbing shoulders with Solie's greatest hits. Nevertheless, Solie's fifth book unfolds both coherently and confidently, a study in intellectual cool. Notice how she keeps the reader at a distance in these lines from "Museum of the Thing":
Sad storm of objects becoming things,
the objective correlative, tired of me
as I am of it. I embody everything it hates
about itself. People don't stand in for each other
the way things do. Someone
for whom Wednesday means groceries
might animate Wednesday with, among other
realities, the inability to possess it,
as one might a derelict potato chip factory
co-opted to ventriloquize one's state
of mind. It's impossible to know, entirely,
what a trip to the Real Canadian Superstore
suggests to someone else.
This passage reads like an essay on the objective correlative, applying T.S. Eliot's criticism of Hamlet to Solie's own creative process. Frustration bubbles under the surface of the quatrains, but the poet is as detached as the signification she derides. That her speaker shops at the "Real Canadian Superstore" fits with her mythology—Solie's protagonists often pose as members of the rank and file, reveling in lowbrow culture. Solie also refuses to "ventriloquize," even at the expense of her prosody, flattening her speech to communicate philosophical details. Historically, sacrificing music for meaning is a sign of two things: either the poet is bored, or she desires to break free of the constraints of traditional poetic devices. Throughout The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out the answer is almost always the latter, as Solie pushes against simple narratives with metaphysical questions. By the time she asks, "Dear being, how might I / responsibly interpret your incomprehensible / behaviour? Where am I in it?" in "Museum of the Thing," readers will be asking the same thing of themselves.
Much of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is played out in transit, providing the book with its central metaphor. Three poems in, Solie grips the wheel of a "Rental Car" that "Accelerate[s] into the curve by the Ford plant, / its freshly birthed Fusions in the nursery lot," waiting like drones. Her journey is politically charged as she steers through an array of small towns outside of Toronto, marshalling slogans that range from dogmatic (Mississauga: "Leading Today for Tomorrow"), to motivational (Oakville: "Go Forward"), to surreal (Burlington: "The Home of Ribfest"); taken together, they create a snapshot of the Canadian landscape, with cultural signifiers speeding past and enhancing Solie's more-or-less conventional road trip narrative. On the highway she finds grace in technology, where "air [that] is thick with personal messaging" competes with her observations. Yet these messages are undefined, something Solie redresses in another take on commuting in "Via." Named after a Canadian rail line, the poem progresses in stanzas that expand and collapse like tracks bearing the weight of an oncoming train:
No parties in formal wear await us at the stations,
no family vacations. Here are creosote and allergies,
energy drinks, your fellow passengers:
young mothers, elderly couples, gamers talking shop,
business travellers stuck in the minors, students
clothed in battlefields of competing logos, totally in love
from the neck down. You are a type, too.
Bereft, content, bored witless, anticipatory, according
to your natures, to the capabilities of your remote
devices, deflecting ministrations of a seatmate
with a theory. Or asleep in the mind's room decorated
in the cathode ray's flickering blue, maturing perfume
of boiled potatoes and 1970s optimism. By now
you're far from home. You've found out
who your friends are. A passing freight
throws a bag over your head, pushes your thoughts over,
roars and clatters at a forearm's distance like the exposed
mechanics of a parallel universe and for a moment
you belong to the ages, without affiliation.
This excerpt is rigorous and considered, and Solie's language is syncopated in a way that's also active and engaging. This is due to her masterful use of diction—particularly the fusion of slang ("gamers") with brand awareness ("competing logos") and idiom ("from the neck down"). There's a crossover appeal to Solie's vernacular, a cultural ethos that makes poems like "Via" realistic despite the stereotypical nature of some of her characters. For example, the anxiety of this commute will be instantly recognizable to American readers, even though "Via" effectively tours central Canada. Solie's nod to "1970s optimism" reinforces this familiarity, situating her speaker in a "parallel universe" where poetry reveals the disaffection of a generation.
For Solie, that generation often includes the reader directly, or as she puts it in "Via": "You are a type, too." Still, throughout The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, the poet is primarily an outsider. The title poem is purposefully placed in the center of the collection, and it acts as a gateway to the travel poems that dominate the second half of the book. On the surface, "The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out" is about process, sucking Solie's words in like a wood chipper before spitting them out again. Certainly she's a different poet than she was on the road in, having "lingered too long / at the viewpoint" after Pigeon, before continuing with even more certainty along her path. Solie's new work is meticulous, chiseled out of her experiences with a deliberate, singular vision. That vision includes concerns about her growing acclaim. Indeed, the title poem echoes the anxieties Solie expressed in "Ode" when she suggests, "An inaudible catastrophic orchestra / is tuning, we feel it in the air / impelled before it, as a pressure / on the brain." Of course, this pressure is building, and it's risky for the poet to gauge its impact on her own work. Instead, Solie finds answers in her craft, tightening her poems until they're fit to engage readers with even the briefest attention spans.
One can't read "The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out" without thinking of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"—an iconic allusion that could become cliché in less-skilled hands. But such is Solie's new platform: one where risk is imperative to success, and allusions branch off in multiple directions at once. Compare the end of Frost's journey ("I took the [road] less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference") to Solie's:
In the day
separate rays fall so thickly
from their source we cannot perceive
the gaps between them, but night
is absolute, uniform, and self-
derived, the formerly irrelevant
brought to bear, the progress
of its native creatures unimpeded.
We have a plan between us, and then we
each have our own. Land of the four
corners, the silent partner, $500
down, no questions, the rental car
stops at the highway intersection, a filthy
violent storm under the hood. It yields
to traffic from both directions.
It appears it could go either way.
Where Frost consciously chooses the path he travels, Solie remains frozen at an intersection, yielding "to traffic from both directions." Fate, or the providence of an unseen world where "separate rays fall so thickly / from their source we cannot perceive / the gaps between them," dictates Solie's actions, and the poem moves forward with an arresting stop-start rhythm. Notice how Solie's punctuation brings her speech to a gallop when she describes the night as "absolute, uniform, and self- / derived." She continues to harness this momentum while exploring the notion of free will, suddenly devolving into monosyllables to emphasize that "We have a plan between us, and then we / each have our own." Certainly Frost abided by fate—his motivation for taking the road less traveled included that "it was grassy and wanted wear"—but the prosody in "The Road Not Taken" is more controlled than Solie's comparatively choppy meter, and Frost entertains the possibility of turning back again. By the end of "The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out" Solie has come to a standstill, stopping to mull her surroundings, and ultimately surrendering to the fact that her Canadian beginnings are now in the rearview. Despite the ambiguity of the poem's final sentence, it's a perspicuous take on Solie's rise to becoming Canada's top poetic export.
So how does a poet speak for an entire country? The genius of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is that after the midway point in the book, Solie stops trying. Instead, she ventures into the old world, writing from the UK and Europe in "The Midlands," "Lord of Fog," and "A Good Hotel in Rotterdam." The first and second halves of the collection are as distinct as the distance covered from "The National Gallery" (set in Canada) to "The National Gallery II" (set in Scotland)—almost as if Solie wrote them chronologically, documenting her travels to recite poetry in Aldeburgh, Cork, Edinburgh, Hull, and Newcastle upon Tyne. Due to its placement later in the book, "The National Gallery II" serves as something of a sea change in the wake of earlier poems that appeared in The Living Option. When Solie begins, "Nor is the twentieth century accessible / in Edinburgh," time starts to bend, and the reader is catapulted both backwards and forwards in a poem that reads like a fluid meditation on how art shapes urban landscapes. The following passage shows how Solie branches off to capture the unexpected, writing impersonal verse in a personal voice:
Nor is the twentieth century accessible
in Edinburgh. As though, post-concept,
one needs only a velvet rope and a sign
stating it's not here, whatever you came to see.
Move along. Here's Jan Weenix
at the height of his decorative powers, this wall-sized Landscape
with a Huntsman and Dead Game
the largest of his allegories representing the senses.
A springer spaniel's inflated proportions
might signify the breed's extravagant stubbornness
as well as a commitment to symbolism.
Misfortune figures in its provenance:
Catholic nuns who acquired the home of an insolvent
sugar merchant sold all five to William Randolph Hearst
whom they entertained and instructed
until his bankruptcy, whereupon it was purchased
by RKO, then Paramount, resurrected as a backdrop
for Monsieur Beaucaire, a carefree
adaptation and Bob Hope vehicle
which delivered unto Hollywood an anxious period of decline.
Initially, the gallery is vacant, roped-off to represent "whatever [the reader] came to see." In this setting, the missing artwork is a metaphor for the speed of social change, and cultivates an almost claustrophobic atmosphere that's reinforced by Solie's aural intensity. The poet establishes this with alliteration (sign/stating), slant rhyme (accessible/in Edinburgh), and assonance (post-concept/one/rope), before jumping back in time to spotlight paintings that have become the foundation of Scotland's National Gallery. There the reader is introduced to Jan Weenix, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter known for his hunting scenes, as well as studies of dead game. But Solie is less interested in the art itself than its provenance, skipping forward to tell the story of how five Weenix canvases were acquired by William Randolph Hearst, and later Paramount Pictures, which used them as backdrops in movies. Hearst, of course, is more famous today as the figure that inspired Orson Welles's Citizen Kane than he is for his turn-of-the-century newspaper empire. All of this allows Solie to pursue cultural evolution with an almost anthropological glee. From Holland's static countryside to Hollywood's moving pictures, the poet traffics between centuries with ease, showing off a narrative facility that would be best described as sleight-of-hand.
While Solie revels in disparate associations, it's not just time and place that fluctuate in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, but influence. Taking a page from one of her formative influences, Lynn Emanuel, Solie has always been a keen observer of the remote and strange, having developed the ability to step outside herself to engage with the natural world. Unlike Emanuel, though, Solie's new work demonstrates a broader universal consciousness, where "Anything / going has far to go." Still, the pull of Emanuel's landscapes can be felt in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, with a film-noir quality pervading the book's topography. Consider the final stanza of "Fables of the Reconstruction," which takes place in a piano bar:
The animal dies when the soul withdraws. Dion Phaneuf
has been traded to the Maple Leafs. Neck deep in a Calgary
piano bar, the future of the franchise attempts "Piano Man,"
but can't get past the first verse. Soon, he might as well have
been born there. Sings it again and again, infernal recurrence
without beginning or end, as the Acme Portable Hole
reaffirms its nomination as the best thing never invented.
Crowd studded with cameraphones like a ham with cloves.
Now always we look upon ourselves. Beauty and terror
in equal measure. Intrigue of a boarded-up building.
We want to get in there and find out what's the matter with it.
Borrowing the title of R.E.M.'s third album, Solie turns the poem into a cultural hodgepodge, hurdling rapidly from metaphor to metaphor. The pervading mood is lifted from Emanuel, or perhaps the piano bar in Casablanca, and James Earl Jones's voice from CNN. Within this melting pot Solie is at her least visible, concealed by an Acme Portable Hole and a wave of cameraphones. This kind of sensory overload is one of the default modes of The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, and the one where Solie feels the most comfortable. Even her words are a cover, with "beauty and terror" alluding to Rilke's "Go to the Limits of Your Longing," boarding her inside the empty building that ends the poem. In fact it's Rilke who best describes Solie's strategy in "Fables of the Reconstruction" when he urges: "let everything happen to you."
When the outside world overwhelms Solie's narratives, there are moments in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out where she falls back into old habits. The mordant touches that distinguished her first book, Short Haul Engine (2001), reappear sporadically, and they often scan like bad song lyrics: "The Corners" channels My Chemical Romance with its opening aphorism ("Where the question are you alright usually finds one very much / not alright"), and "Trouble Light" sounds like Arcade Fire when Solie writes "Sun of breakdown, sun / in a cage." For the most part, however, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out marks the continued evolution of Solie's voice, cultivating volatility with a carefully chosen delivery and embracing the paradoxes of contemporary culture. Solie's new work convincingly outgrows Emanuel's scope, radiating outward from the noir stylings of her beginnings. She even redresses former influences when writing in "Be Reasonable": "Often I don't recognize what I'd rather not do until I've agreed to do it." It's what Solie will do in the future that makes her the Canadian poet of the moment—inspiring her own cohort of young Canadian writers such as Nyla Matuk, Michael Prior, and Damian Rogers, while writing at the height of her powers.
Ultimately, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is Solie's best book. That Michael Hofmann includes her along with Frederick Seidel and Lawrence Joseph as an exemplar of a modern poet is telling: her voice is trenchant, variable, and up-to-the-minute. While some of Hofmann's assertions are hyperbolic, Solie is already one of Canada's most internationally acclaimed poets, needing only five books to ascend to the head of her class. A mixture of purpose and ambition fills her work, and is best described in her own words: "When I learned I could own a piece of The World / I got my cheque-book out." While this is the satirical opening of a poem that sends up a cruise liner with 165 luxury apartments that continuously sails the globe, it serves as a metaphor for The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out as a whole: a collection of poems that will give Solie her currency on the open market.
* * *
Editor: Don Share
Art Director: Fred Sasaki
Managing Editor: Sarah Dodson
Assistant Editor: Lindsay Garbutt
Editorial Assistant: Holly Amos