Karen Solie, who won the Canadian Griffin Prize with her third collection Pigeon, is very much a poet of unrest. Many of her poems refer to locations associated with travel, such as roadside motels. The Living Option: Selected Poems, conveys said restlessness much like a best-of album of a musical artist. One might say that the poems from Solie’s first three poetry collections are a mix of grunge and power ballads which are, however, seldom musical.
Indeed, most of her poetry is focused on ideas rather than technique or style. While she is certainly aware of a variety of literary techniques, she does not experiment, which causes the overall effect of the writing to appear formulaic. The most common of the un-innovative poetic techniques is probably the way the lines are spaced in order to emphasise the last word: while it does arguably add depth to the verse it is overused, featuring in every line of every poem. “Love Poem for a Private Dick” for example uses vocabulary commonly associated with emotional proximity this way:
Sucker punch, true romance.
15 years I’ve read your name
on the door, filed my nails down hard,
managed a parade of dames
whose rich husbands tire easily.
This is somewhat remedied in the new poems from The Living Option: “Ode”, for instance, is far more energetic than the majority of Solie’s work; it is also denser and thus more engaging than, say, “Self-portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations”, which reads almost like a shopping list. While that is the point of the poem, and is also indicated in the title, it causes an effect that is reminiscent of bullet points rather than poeticism.
However, to pick at Solie’s disinterest in innovation of technique would be a misdirection of energy. She is not so much a writer of form as she is a writer of ideas: many of her poems refer directly to philosophy, and the depressing tone of much of her verse is evocative of existential resignation. For example, in “Java Shop, Fort MacLeod”:
When it’s dark, head east
past the horse-killing plant. No deer for miles.
You left a line or two in the water
farther up the valley,
though someone else lives in your house.
Travel once again functions as the primary metaphor for both change and escape. The horse-killing plant and the lack of deer underline the lifelessness of the scene, and even the (former) home has been invaded by others, leaving the narrator in a friendless and hopeless environment that can only be avoided by travelling away from it.
At times, however, Solie makes the mistake trying to be too clever. In “Found: Elementary Calculus”, she attempts to transcribe maths into literature:
32 ft. per (sec.)2. The reader
should think out for himself
why the phrase per second
occurs twice. The quantity
in question sound more meaningful
if read: 32 feet per second
– pause –
While it is true the poetry seeks to find a deeper truth, trying to apply this principle is arguably redundant since mathematics is the most abstract and self-sufficient means of describing the true nature of all things. Moreover, in purely literary or philosophical terms, the repetition of “per second” is no more than a tautology. It may therefore sound more meaningful, but it so blatantly is not. Trying to imbue it with further meaning is rather pointless.
The above example is, however, one of few examples that might be worth revising. In the end, poetry of ideas is what Solie does best; and for the most part, this results in unmitigated, unvarnished and uncompromising verse of how the world is. So despite reservations one might have concerning form, or of the poetry overshooting the mark, The Living Option does what it sets out to do: represent truth.