‘She is so talented that even her darkest poems dazzle” – this ardent back-cover peroration goes far in describing the taught, lyrical poetry of Karen Solie, whose stardom, with two recent major award nominations, is approaching supernova.
Solie, who grew up in southwest Saskatchewan, is, among other things, a poet of place. Her work is located in a landscape that “rises/ muddy as a vein,” to a past remembered as “jumping like a fish you’d thought was dead.”
Yet, in Other People’s Houses, the poet states:
But I’ve never been to Saskatchewan
and don’t care much for birds.
It’s much simpler
when all you know about me
is that I lie.
It is this notion – the poet as liar – that animates Short Haul Engine, and aligns it to the confessional poetry she cites as either influence or analogue.
It was Anne Sexton, “popular as a car wreck,” by Solie’s estimation, who most memorably constructed her work as something less “beautiful” than a “complicated lie.”
Solie’s work also utilizes this premise: Her poems retain, by the highest confessional standards, both the intimacy associated with autobiography (“tattletale skin./ Privacy. Bruises.”) and the distance encoded in a hard engagement with process and craft: “The responsibility not to speak/ a certain silly thought.”
An ambitious, multi-tasking enterprise, Short Haul Engine also delves into pop narratives (from “Johnny Eck, half boy” to Robert Mitchum), studious explorations of history, geography and meteorology, and, in her starkest instances, such deep tropes as illness, panic, grief and Eating Dirt. “After all,” Solie writes, “some cravings. Are only charming when you’re small,” thereby inscribing a poetics of her own, one which explicates the poetic endeavour itself, as the means by which the author recovers the substance and sludge of the past, with the wariness and bravura such a practice entails.
Solie’s voice is polished and original: She moves with ease from the argot of the engine (“those times of jerry-rigged cardboard gaskets/ and pantyhose fanbelts”) to the short and long haul of executing “non-negotiable, secure” poetry.
An enviable, accomplished collection, Short Haul Engine provokes a reading Solie herself states best: “I would live to be,” she writes in Three for a Friend in Lieu of Some Help, “the kick in your perfect ass.”
Lynn Crosbie is a Toronto-based writer whose most recent collection of poems is Queen Rat.