So, are you in or are you out?

Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves

Picador, 144pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781529005325

reviewed by GE Stevens

Toronto-based writer Karen Solie, described by Michael Hofmann as ‘the one by whom the language lives’, has done it again. The Caiplie Caves is both an extraordinary and unsettling accomplishment. Solie begins by setting out a brief history of the caves and a description of the book’s protagonist of indecision, St Ethernan. Whilst the caves are still visited today, she tells us, records of St Ethernan are ‘often sketched only briefly, in passing’ so that his story ‘resists a final resting place in the ever-expanding facility of the past’. What we do know is that Ethernan was not endowed with special powers or a supernatural conjuring ability as was common to his cohort at this time. Ethernan, by all accounts, was an ordinary man, subsisting on bread and water, who travelled to these caves and stayed there, contemplating the ‘heavily birded’ May Island opposite where he might, or might not, build a priory. This decision, to either live in solitude as a caved hermit, or to be active and build a communal place of worship, is the cornerstone of this probing collection; how should we, the reader, reconcile the dissident draw of both estrangement and engagement? What is our responsibility both to the world and to ourselves, and what happens when they’re at odds? Does merely noticing the world do living justice?

Solie resists resolution; despite being profoundly philosophical (Solie studied philosophy), The Caiplie Caves is not a philosophical argument. The poems are unstable, they to and fro between despair of the world we’re in on the one hand and a rejection of solitude on the other. In one of the strongest poems of the collection, ‘When Solitude was a problem, I had no solitude’, Solie asks what it means to take part in our contemporary culture which is ‘best described as heroic. Courageous in self-promotion, noble / in the circulation of others’ disgrace.’ Likewise, in ‘The Sharing Economy’, Solie does not shy away from calling it: ‘This performance of “I want my fucking Money’ / broadcast live from the street will conclude/ when the last human being on earth / has perished.’ Language too will surely dwindle and spoil: ‘language / signifying less and less/ though very slowly.’ But should we, in the face of all this, follow in the footsteps of her Saint? Solie seems to answer this in ‘Kertingern and Robin’: ‘A person can’t just do nothing’ but then is unable to move towards any different future: ‘Why do I not move on? Why / hang around here while grass / grows up my chimney?’ In ‘Origin Story’, she writes: ‘To make our own the righteous anger / that keeps some people alive / feels like doing something’ so that ‘survival does not seem merely accidental’ so perhaps a life of anger is preferable to one of seclusion?

Of course, Ethernan never leaves. Never makes the decision to leave. Instead, he spends his days watching birds, tip-toeing on mania’s broken glass and, in the end, seeing visions of St Paul that he doesn’t want to see: ‘I have outlived my future, why invite its ghosts / to bother me where I sleep?’ Ultimately solitude cannot support life, and Ethernan becomes a living example of a life spent ‘feasting on simple sugars of my indecision.’ But even when you succeed in making a decision, Solie reminds us that the conditions will inevitably change as she writes ‘Any visit / is a lesson in how quickly conditions change’. Her Ethernan, however, is deluded on this front – in ‘He examines his practice’ he writes ‘the nothing I do, my unmade works, the no one I love / the life brought to naught’ and then follows with ‘But might one’s hands not always be empty?’ Why would his hands ever not be empty if he never leaves? There are simply no variables to alter in order to change the outcome. Is this blind hope Solie is holding up for us to mock? Faith? The fallibility of logic?

In ‘Miscalculation’, not one of Ethernan’s poem, the speaker gets it wrong. ‘To turn back would have made sense’ they write, ‘but I chose otherwise’. Solie seems to be appealing to the difficulty of sound judgement when all you are given are half-truths. Take these lines, ‘Experience teaches but its lessons / may be useless’. You can almost see the shrug, the what’s the damn point anymore. But even if this speaker feels like throwing in the towel, the poetry never gives up. The sheer veracity of Solie’s work is a form of resistance to the bewildering and ignoble world she lampoons. She tells it straight and crucially, she is no sugar-coater: ‘A loved thing shared and doubled / is in solitude never whole again.’ Absolutely right. ‘I saw trees turn into ships, and sail away’. I’ve not read a better description of a life wasted, under-lived.

Solie’s poetry is also a form of resistance by just being so very pleasurable to read. Hofmann, in a 2014 LRB article praises Solie’s ‘bunched sense’. She’s a master at this, deftly delaying the final meaning until everything else is in place. It’s as if she hands out images all in one go, as if you see them as you might a picture – they just arrive and appear to make sense of themselves. For example, in ‘Sauchorpe Links Caravan Park’:

My love, who negotiated with a Silk Cut
In his wheel hand the unfamiliar roundabout

To the A915 at Kirkaldy, sweeps droppings
From the paved deck like an owner, with his whole heart.

The action of sweeping droppings from the paved deck ‘with his whole heart’ literally encases a completely different action of him negotiating an unfamiliar roundabout. Two entirely different scenes held together, like two circles inside each other, presented in such a way that we need to hold both these images in our heads at the same time until Solie decides to close the circle. I think that’s why I find myself holding my breath when I read her work; it’s as if she holds back her hand till the very last minute then lays her cards flat on the table. And the hand is never what I expect. Delight also comes from her tone, at times almost chatty as if she’s next to you at a party, leaning in to whisper, ‘He [Pelagius] didn’t believe in original sin / You can imagine the trouble he got into over that / Old Pelagius, keeping it dry.’ And then there’s the sheer musical joy of passages such as this, describing the birds ‘a few paces behind, or racing ahead, innocently/ buzzing like a toy, like the boy //who bags your pheasants then / reports you to the King.’

It’s this precise and seemingly effortless footwork between philosophical enquiry, musical chime, leaping phrase-making and lyric candour that makes Karen Solie so compelling. She works on you and you don’t notice it happening till it’s done. She keeps doing the unexpected, what Hofmann called her ‘round the corner knight moves’, that sudden shifting of gears, that back and forth between folly and toughness, and all the time her purpose is so well concealed – it’s as if each poem arrives like an incredibly attractive stranger.

If I were pushed to find a blue note, I would say the poems outside of Ethernan’s story seemed to sing the loudest – perhaps they are simply easier to read on the page, but also I suspect because Solie is so good at choosing the contemporary details that ground and contextualise the existential bewilderment felt today by so many. Ethernan, left to his own devices in the cave, has less reach. Still, lines like this as a description of mania ‘ music at the fold of appearance and disappearance / may be what I’m hearing’ made me put down the book and think about a career change. It’s testament to Solie’s philosophical attack of an idea, her linguistic slight of hand and implicit musicality that a story such as this, of an ordinary man who thinks about doing something, does nothing, then dies, can take on such contemporary probing resonance. What she has built is far more than a book of poems, it is a parable, a warning, an interrogation, an astonishing declaration of uncertainty.
GE Stevens is a poet and critic who lives in London.