Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

"The Living Option" by Karen Solie (Bloodaxe, 2013)

Getting a 160-page book like this (cover price £9.95) makes me wonder whether it's worth speculating on some hyped UK young poet when there are so many established N.American poets unknown to me. According to the back cover she's "a sublime singer of existential bewilderment".

Most of her poems are longer than a page. Many are punctuated by short sentences. In "Self-portrait ..." she writes "A good grasp of theory, though many sentence fragments/ and an unusual fondness for semicolons; a tendency/ toward unsubstantiated leaps", which must have been quoted back at her a few times. Imagery abounds, much of the time intertwined with persona-revelation. Here are some examples

  • Simple and effective
    Nostalgia is a prettier season. Leaves
    fall on the river and a few are the colour of wine
  • Not so simple
    At the core of all sighs is a name, a stone
    from the body's last lost home
  • This integrates the persona with language
    You are a friend,
    I think, even though
    my hysterical math can't discern
    your sevens from your nines,
    and we disagree on the function
    of a denouement. You said,
    only a coward reads the back page first.
    Or was that me, dear,
    I forget.
  • This integrates the persona with more imagistic language. Note the sustained tone
    I edged toward you
    at the old hotel bar
    padded in disaster movie extras
    going down with their ships.
    The brain floods easily,
    that old engine. Later
    is a lullaby of rain scraping paint
    from the streets. Show me again
    how to take you home
  • This one puzzles me
    My odometer books odds of sleep
    in hands and head. The cat knows it,
    moving through luggage in the back seat,
    throwing sparks.
  • Back to simple again
    I place a hand on your arm,
    heavy clothes a door to a warm kitchen
    of your body

"Archive" is 7 pages in a prose layout. The space affords room for facts and speculation. Here are 3 of the paragraphs -

  • "... she wants a picture of the river to look at later. A document to locate her for people far away. The photograph is shot from the middle of the bridge looking east, though it feels to the photographer, somehow, south. The white shape in the bottom left corner is her hand on the rail. Uneasiness requires that she hold it tightly while lifting the camera to her eye. Because the camera was not expensive she feels that should it fall for some reason the 50-odd metres to the river, she will not have lost something important"
  • "The first train crossed the bridge in 1913, an occasion celebrated by the shrieking of many whistles and sirens. Its 8,000 tons of steel, 500,000 cubic feet of concrete and 1.4 million rivets cost 2 million dollars. The economy was different then, but not so different. Workers earned 35 cents an hour. ..."
  • "Atoms move at an infinite speed. By virtue of their weight, they tend downward. Allowed to behave naturally, they would fall vertically and uniformly and would never meet. "

But "Erie" is in structurally-redundant couplets. It begins "A trip to the Erie shore on the cheap side/ of shoulder season, to a working port// and low-rent summer beach resort/ for local 18 to 25ers home// from school. The ice cream stands, tourist/ shops were mostly boarded over, a few// dopey dance clubs padlocked, flyers/ for wet t-shirt contexts and quarter shooters. It recovers at the end - "At the wind farm, minimalist daisies/ rotated on humming vertiginous stalks,// chunks of air like bathtubs falling/ around us, good intentions complicated// by avian mortality and the eternal/ complaints of The People. Nothing's// perfect, I said, trying to please you. I didn't./ But that's okay, you said, that's okay". And "Casa Mendoza" has a visual pattern too - indented lines which follow a pattern of indents that repeat the cycle 0-1-2-1.

She's good with endings. Here's the end of "Migration" - "In fall, the Arctic tern will fly 12,500 miles to Antarctica as it did every year you were alive. It navigates by the sun and stars. It tracks the earth's magnetic fields sensitively as a compass needle and lives on what it finds. I don't understand it either."

"Found: Elementary Calculus" is a found poem from "Elementary Calculus. A. Keith and W.J. Donaldson. Glasgow: Gibson 1960". "Postscript" contains "Random errors like a bell around a mean" which shows math awareness too, though in an online interview it says "She aspired to be a veterinarian, but found math and science off-putting ('I don’t have that kind of mind')". I'm unsure about any of the found poems though, or "Skid". After a while some templates/tendencies emerge -

  • Here are the endings of consecutive poems starting from "Cipher Stroke" - they share a theme: "This endless untitled exclamation implicit and from everywhere at once", "it rained for more than a million years", "Always is he ...", "fledges from persistence what he is", "forever along the sea wall", "That is, in the instant, at the time"
  • When I reached "Wager" I recognised its shape. It starts with a flurry of imagery/observation, then a persona suddenly addresses the reader, cranking up the emotion - "I'm telling you,/ if you believe it's worse never to have tried,/ then you haven't really tried", then continues with some imagery/observation before a punchline - "Take this guy up ahead who's driven 45 minutes/ with his turn signal on through this jurisdiction of few exits,/ as if the hope of a left is all he's got now/ in his one chance on this earth".

The book ends with new poems, a generous selection that's dated 2013. "Rothko via Muncie, Indiana" illustrates another style she uses, combining found material (this time from a Rothko letter), researched material (from a documentary series in this case) gnomic outbursts, and observation. "Snow on the grid, field bisected by a new model John Deere's progress ... vehicles moored to bungalows by the block heater cords ... For we favour the simple expression of the complex thought. The large shape's impact of the unequivocal. Flat forms that destroy illusion, reveal truth ... the Muncie Mall and both quadrangles of Ball State university shed their associations, perform an unknown adventure in unknown space. Halogens illuminate an anecdote of the spirit ... Among the graduating class an abstract feeling develops, an inclination to symbolism born of the fatal car wreck ... To achieve this clarity is inevitably to be misunderstood. ". "The National Gallery" , not for the first time in this book, uses aeroplanes - "all is surface, like the past. The future is an airplane, seen from an airplane. Lorazepam's sweet fog burned off. Here is the present, its landing gear".

Enough to keep me interested throughout.

Other reviews

  • Michael Hofmann (London Review of Books) (Enormous credit goes to Bloodaxe for commissioning this exhilarating volume ... If I wanted to show someone - an agnostic - what a modern poem can do, I would show them something by Lawrence Joseph, or Frederick Seidel, or Karen Solie ... The only reservation I have about the book is that it leaves out a number of other, equally marvellous poems)
  • Rob McLennan (This is an impressive and impressively large collection of her work)

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