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Review | The Road in is Not the Same Road Out, Karen Solie

Karen Solie’s new collection is stunning—vivid, clever, lyric, fueled at all times by a restless talk that lifts into song, and song that observes a common, modern life. The book’s title speaks of journeys and travels—certainly roads and diners and rest stops comprise the setting for much of the meditations here. And many of the people in these locales are the sad, lonely denizens of a country-western song. But as the outward journey crosses all manner of landscape and tourist attraction, the speaker is able to use poetry—music and art—to transform the washed out spaces into the recognizable places of our lives, the totems of the culture, the spaces we inhabit and know and feel.

The elegy “Spiral” is a representative poem of the collection, going in and out of “high” poetic diction while remembering a year spent playing bingo instead of drinking. The bingo hall “was like working in a mine, the air quality and incessant / coughing, bag lunches, good luck charms, the intergenerational / drama.” This locale—one filled with tchotchkes and based on luck—is a perfect place for Solie’s central speaker to inhabit. If the book didn’t include a bingo hall, we would probably feel the lack.

The speech of “Spiral” sounds like talk: “Still, you were kind— / unusually so, it seems to me now,” has the hesitation or revision of “real time” thinking. How tremendous, then, when the lyric gears shift to high and the reflection becomes more focused:

The night you’ve entered now has no lost wife in it, no daughter,
I would like to think it peace, but suspect it isn’t anything.

When our friend wrote you’d died I was on Skye,
where the wind in its many directions is directionless
and impossible to put your back to.

(. . .)

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 tide.
At first there were two, then three appeared, but when I began
to pay attention I realized they were everywhere.

It’s a delightful path to follow, and moves through some unexpected turns, until we find ourselves not at the bingo hall or even examining the spirals of shells. The final image is surprising, instructs us in our attention, and sends us back into the poem to see it again in a new way. 

I want to say that Solie is “old-fashioned.” The poems are variations on lyric meditations that have been written for centuries. What she’s doing isn’t that different from Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, or Horace in his fields. What makes her poems fresh is not just that they happen in greasy diner landscapes, but her central seriousness about the lyric as a viable way into contemporary consciousness or collective expression.

The ode “For the Ski Jump at Canada Olympic Park, Calgary” is reminiscent of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”—wry, tragic, clear-eyed, aware that the gaudy physical world we see can connect us to humanity or the ineffable.

You grew into your destiny
in the city’s northwest, overlooking
a gas station, the KOA, a few acreages maybe
on the earliest suggestions of foothills,
we hardly remember what that was like.
It was before I was born into
what I think of as my life.

New developments encroach the ski jump, their “modern open homeplans” try to “act” natural in the landscape. For some of the residents, she muses, the ski jump has always been there but never in use, and may as well be a part of nature.

Does it matter to us
if we’re outlived by a minute
or a thousand years? I’m not saying it should.

You strayed from insignia,
from the party of the symbolic imagination,
and no one noticed.

(. . .)

on the observation platform observe
the accelerating ritual of supply
and demand. A view makes us feel young.

Ideal conditions are a memory that pains
even a Finn.

The poem is funny and conversational, but poignant and surprising as well. Solie doesn’t turn the ski jump into a joke, and she doesn’t revere it as a lost relic, but she does see it as one of many things we build that outlive their own usefulness and us. The turns and ideas are surprising, and by the end we’ve seen something gimmicky and familiar become a site of something much more serious and necessary. How much of human landscape is like the ski jump—built with great fanfare and now not useful or even historical.

Solie is very comfortable leaping from one thought to another, often with no clear transition. The amount of “disjunction” or associative thinking will recall a very particular aesthetic—that of the post-modern or avant-garde. Certainly the voice is often “chatty” and informal, observing all manner of day-to-day arcana that, when taken out of context and placed into a poem, creates a kind of surrealism, or commentary on how surreal contemporary culture has become.

But the often-casual tone or “low” subject matter (e.g. a meditation on watching a Tom Cruise movie subtitled in a foreign country) is only one element, and it is in service to the poems’ grandeur. Solie’s “Road In” may take us through skuzzy apartments and rest stop bathrooms, but there is gravity to the journey. The sonnet “Trouble Light” is indicative:

Sun of breakdown, sun
in a cage, risen over
a concrete floor, gutting table,
beer bottles. Form
from function dislocated,
the hood is up
in an unsound hour.

The details telegraph, distilled and unadorned—this is the ominousness of a car breakdown in a horror movie. That the objects are forms that have been divested of function tells us what we need to know about our speaker and about the thesis of a poem that will dwell on a car not in motion, another pause on the road in and road out.

This is Solie’s fifth book of poetry, but only the first to be brought out and distributed by an American house. Readers will be grateful to discover this “new” writer; indeed, the final emotion once the journey has been completed is that of thanks. We could not ask for a stronger, more clear-eyed ferryman to shepherd us through our emotional and physical landscapes.  


Craig Beaven’s work appears in BlackbirdThird CoastCarolina QuarterlyCutbankSouthern Humanities Review, and other journals.