In her T.S. Eliot Prize-nominated fifth collection, Canadian poet Karen Solie inhabits a figure inspired by Ethernan, a seventh century Irish missionary who retreated to the Caiplie Caves on the eastern coast of Scotland to consider life as a hermit. Interwoven with the voice of this figure are poems whose subjects orbit the physical location of the caves and join the sharply contemporary to the mythic past.
Almost nothing prepares the reader of her early books for the turn she has taken in The Caiplie Caves—that is, if you took the author of 'modern and normal' at her word ... Solie performs a legerdemain of time and space and personal identity to grapple with the current political reality. The closest approximation I can think of is something like Seamus Heaney’s North, whose sequence of desolate landscape poems uses the figures of excavated bog people of northern Europe to allegorize Ireland’s unspeakable civil strife ... Solie does not dispense with the stand-alone lyric, and she does not create dull stretches of narrative information. The intensity of language is extraordinarily sustained ... Like its landscape, it’s a chilly read, bereft of appeasement or good humor. Rarely has Solie unleashed such a full-throated snarl ... And rarely has she sounded more anguished or penitent ... What The Caiplie Caves loses in comedy, it gains in beauty: the sublime kind, pitiless and magisterial ... Solie’s powers of description have never been so acute, her senses so greedy ... Solie would deny that she works miracles. I beg to differ.
Despite their geo-historical settings, most Caiplie poems are accessible to general readers. Solie does not write in obscure words. Her style is almost lyrical, though placed under the heft of quaint history ...The Caiplie poems carry metaphysical streaks, and Solie demonstrates an urge for philosophizing events, observations, and phenomena ... Then there are poetic fragments scattered throughout the poems, which captivate the readers. The reader pauses and searches for meaning though it's unclear whether the fragment has any meaning in the poem, or any meaning anywhere. The fragments refuse to surrender to the captivated mind ... The words, the ideas, the passion, everything about the poems is subdued, understated, reserved, except for the 'fuck' derivatives sprinkled here and there, which, too, produce little commotion ... first-rate poetry, clean of clichés, free of thickheaded imagery, demonstrating good heartedness, reveling in diluted mysticism, drawing on inconsequential stories from the shores of Scotland.
In the non-Ethernan poems, Solie sticks with the approach that has worked for her in previous books. That approach depends on associative leaps, rapid changes in register...and diction plucked from every nook in the dictionary ... Compression, stillness and plainness are largely absent; quick shifts, volubility and references to Barthes are fully present ... You might suppose this would result in a little too much self-conscious literariness, but Solie tempers her lines with good humor and an attractive populism ... You can see the best of Solie in a shorter poem like 'A Lesson' ... The quiet assurance is astonishing. This is unfortunately not the case for quite a bit of the rest of The Caiplie Caves ... her Ethernan...gets old fast ... while Solie’s speed can be a virtue, it can also lead to lines that look hurried and unhelpfully baroque. This has been true of her earlier collections, though not debilitatingly so ... The project form seems to have aggravated this tendency ... The Caiplie Caves has its moments ... But this feels like the work of a poet who has set out to write poetry, rather than of a writer who has turned out to have written some poems. This will get applauded; people like poetry that looks the way it’s supposed to. But it would be good to see this talented writer disappoint such readers in the future.