On Oct. 16, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Karen Solie reading from her collection of poetry Pigeon. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
At night, atoms slow so you can walk between them
and find absence, like your old house,
where you left it. Enter, and it expands
to the size of a hotel. Its rooms
are your childhood, your work, your loves.
by Karen Solie
Karen Solie believes that where you grow up “supplies your first map of the world. Any other place that you ever go is overlaid on that map.” For her, that was a small town in southwest Saskatchewan where the neighbouring town was considered an archrival and tractors inspired poetry. The poet recently visited the Canadian Writers in Person series to read from her latest book, Pigeon.
While writing this latest collection, Solie reflected on her previous work, much of which was driven by life on the road, being alone and in between temporary places. She felt like she didn’t want to write any more poems about farms, and wanted to be more “cosmopolitan and sophisticated.” She moved to Toronto but found that images of home kept returning. She also felt that she wanted to be more honest, to not “hide behind literary tricks.” Being honest meant to see beyond the physical fact of an experience to its unknown quantities and the mystery of things.
Despite the ambiguities of the unknown, Solie believes in the power and specificity of names, turns of phrase, and gestures. She referred to a line in polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Encounter”, in which a man makes a simple gesture to a hare. “That gesture, ending in the very mortal hand pointing out into the darkness, your heart follows that hand. That small detail can send the mind out into the unknown, into all that wonder that is also grief, that is also sorrow, that is also fear, but that is mystery.”
When asked about the interesting cover of Pigeon, Solie deferred credit to House of Anansi designer Bill Douglas. However, she noted that the image of the pigeon with a turbine in its claw reflects the intersection between the natural and the industrial world. In the place where she grew up, it was very rural yet there was a lot of industrial farming machinery. “It’s very conflicted: you can identify with the place you came from but still hate things about it at the same time.” Likewise, the pigeon is a natural creature of the urban landscape. “They’re pests but they’re also quite beautiful birds, adaptive, resilient, and admirable.”
In her poem “Prime Minister”, Solie explores the modern compartmentalization of our attention, where terrible things that happen in the real world are only thirty-second clips in between shots of the Prime Minister at a hockey game. She noted that we’re implicated in systems we’d prefer not to be but but the most dangerous belief is the feeling that there is nothing that can be done about it. That is why for Solie, “writing and reading are political acts because it means you’re keeping eyes open.”
There is a sense of loneliness in much of Solie’s work. In “Postscript”, she writes about driving through an abandoned town where houses were left unsold with curtains still in the windows, stores with cans still on their shelves. She reflects that it’s one thing to see things on your own and another to have someone with you, who you can turn to and say “Look at that!” Otherwise, the way to make oneself belong is by “learning the names of things and putting myself among them.”
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Oct. 30, in Room 206, Accolade West Building, the James Bartleman will read from his novel As Long As The Rivers Flow.