Karen Solie’s first collection of poems, Short Haul Engine, is the voice of that friend you rely on to tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it, the friend whose honesty you’re compelled to trust. Impatient with attempts to sugar-coat the harsher facts of life, Solie writes in “Signs Taken For Wonders,”
Did Mr. Schaeffer receive a sign
as the tractor crushed his chest?
Doubtful. He had a Lutheran wife,
likely planting silly doomed petunias
in the clay.
No planting of silly petunias, this book is more hte crushing of hte chest. Solie is a risk-taker. Risks surface as the facing up to hard facts, difficult truths. Hard fact: “… newly-hatched sparrows / choked by earth / that leapt up to bury them” (“Dry Mother”). Difficult truth: “Cross a friend’s threshold and aging passes / like an unkind word between you” (“Java Shop, Fort MacLeod”).
Solie is not squeamish, calls it as she sees it, often championing life’s uglier moments or that from which we would rather avert our eyes, be it the suffocated sparrow or our own pettiness. Willing to address the attraction of taboos – the trill of thieving, the thrill of the boyfriend’s secy black Nova, of the forbidden, the Dionysian – she refuses to cling unnecessarily to ideas of order and pious goodness.
Working in tandem in this collection with the risk of telling-it-like-it-is is the perhaps more meaningful risk of vulnerability. In “In Praise of Grief” she writes, “there’s always something / you should know, some small way / you’re fooling yourself.” Solie’s poems root out that small way in which you/she/I fool ourselves. Not afraid to own her human weaknesses, even the weakness of fooling herself, nor afraid of hte mortal joys and sorrows that dog us, she often writes lines unlaced with irony. In praise of the toad: “Just listen. / Even when I cry for you / it sounds like singing” (“Toad”). Or “all the reasons we are so desperate upon waking” (“The Bends”). Solie lays her feelings on the line. We have only to look at the title of the first section, “I Like You.” Though you could say it ducks form the greater risk of “I love you,” “I like you” evokes the getting-to-know-you stage of a relationship, the risk involved in being the first to say how you feel, chancing rejection.
She lets down her guard, defiantly, in the interest of truth. What we have is a tough, gravelly voice meditating on loneliness and weakness: “If coincidence has a law / it’s lonely” (“Action at a Distance”). This double-barrelled riskiness – not mere bravado – is what distinguishes her voice. If the poems at times are off-hand, playful, swaggering – “Five of Diamonds, River Runt, Lazy Ike,” she names the sturgeon – they are also willing to abandon this stance and speak in a tone of awe: “[we] could not contain / the old current he had for a mind, its pull, / and his body a muscle called river, called spawn” (“Sturgeon”). While the tone runs the gamut from a shrug of the shoulders to reverence, the sheer metaphorical density of her thought is also startling. In the lines quoted above (not only is the mind current, but the body is a single muscle, the single muscle is river, muscle and river are spawn) no less than six elements are drawn into lyric resonance. There are may other startling metaphoric moments:
a digger wasp desperate with autumn
behind hot panes of your eyes. Mad
from the truth of time, its whine
rising to crescendo inside, sawing. Wild
to make anyone hurt this way
before it finally lies down in the leaves.
(“Waking Up in Surgery”)
Here Solie sustains the metaphor as she shifts in tone from desperation to resignation, in fact using the metaphor to shift us. Effective to leave it at the crystallization of a single moment (“brain / a digger wasp”); more challenging to think the metaphor through, or to think through the metaphor, as it were. We might also pause to look at the way she uses sound. The hard “g” and “d” in “digger” evoke the banging against the window panes, and there’s the shadow of a pun on “pane” and “Pain,” a buried rhyme in “brain” and “panes.” The profusion of long i’s in the last four lines (time, whine, rising, inside, wild, finally, lies) onomatopoeically evokes the persistent whining effort of the wasp/brain, building tension until the last half of the last line, when the long i’s give way to “down in the leaves.” The buzzing ceases, the tension is released, the wasp dies.
Perhaps the most astonishing about Short Haul Engine, particularly as a first collection, is its consistent, confident, sensitive handling of language. My faith in Solie’s capability to guide me through the poem never lapses. Short Haul Engine was nominated for both the Gerald Lampert Award and the Griffin Prize, and with good reason. The collection has a strong stomach and a soft heart. Not only is it linguistically virtuosic, but Solie’s blunt style seems to both come from and exude a deep concern for the living.
– Sue Sinclair