Don McKay introduces Karen Solie in Introductions... Poets Present Poets
Reviewed by Don McKay (Introductions... Poets Present Poets (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2001))
Don McKay introduces Karen Solie’s writing in a book published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in spring 2001 Introductions ... Poets Present Poets. [Introductions is a unique undertaking in the world of Canadian poetry. This exciting anthology brings together 15 of this country's most honoured and influential poets whose goal is to introduce this generation's finest - yet lesser known - poets.]
Every strong poetry has its own distinctive flavour or tang, the combination of qualities that makes it unique. To introduce Karen Solie’s poetry to a new reader, a person is naturally inclined to say ‘here, try some of this,’ and hand her the equivalent of a small glass of single malt. Then we could stand around and try words like smoky or peaty or big nose with a complex middle and a touch of diesel in the endgame. But an intro is an intro so I’ll venture something like this: before I encountered Karen Solie’s work the idea of encountering both Sylvia Fricker and Susan Sontag in the same sensibility was an idle notion. But here it is – a fierce writing of quickness and edge that can take on just about anything: the highway, Freud, farm suicides, sturgeon, all manner of flawed and far-off romance – with candour and a trenchant humour that’s the cutting edge of intelligence. Not to mention sly skinny music, not to mention sheer metaphorical pounce, moves that accomplish themselves before you realize they’re underway. No telegraphing (as my basketball coach used to shout at us, vainly, from the sidelines), no redundancy, no fumbling from line to line. Do we recognize this coffee shop?
inside, frying is a kind of weather, a Florida
for flies, the doughnuts afflicted,
the coffee malicious.
Tiny friendless salads make you weep.
Lord, yes. As we recognize – even when we haven’t seen them first hand – that boyfriend’s car (‘Black Nova. Jacked up. Fast.”), that Day’s Inn, those bleak gas stations and solitary rooms, all of them viewed with an intensity that burns away nostalgia and sentiment. Maybe, tossing around words in that kitchen of the mind, we’d come up with something like ”W.O. Mitchell’s shadow self” or a recall of Jack Gilbert’s observation that God is compassionate but not merciful. Karen Solie’s work reminds me that there is at the heart of metaphor a delicious amoral joy that raw irrepressible humour often personified in the trickster which kicks in no matter how ‘painful’ or ‘depressing’ the subject. Lord, yes, we say, the hangover.
Now, the day is explicit.
Swallows fall in shrieks
from great heights. My head
is a drawer full of spoons.
I asked my friend Barry Dempster what he thought was the special quality of Karen’s work and he said maybe it’s a combination of a remarkably dark sense of humour and vulnerability, plus a way of “brazenly embracing anger, absurdity, complexity, the whole shebang.” That’s got to be close. Meanwhile I’d say you’ve already spent too much time hanging out in the kitchen overhearing second-hand descriptions when you could be out there imbibing the dangerous stuff itself. So get going.
This introduction appears in Introductions: Poets Present Poets, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in 2001. For more information, see http://www.fitzhenry.ca/detail.aspx?ID=9154
Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Frontier College, a Canada-wide, volunteer-based, literacy organization.