THE CAIPLIE CAVES
By Karen Solie
“We love the things we love for what they are,” Robert Frost declares at the end of “Hyla Brook.” But as Frost knew, that’s only half the truth. We also love the things we love because of how they make us feel about ourselves, which is itself often a function of how we think they make us appear to others. Or so roughly 97 percent of social media postings, particularly those involving boats, would suggest.
This fact has a special relevance for poets, because while our culture generally has little interest in poems as such, there is still cachet in being seen as a Person Who Reads Poetry. A writer who aspires to recognition beyond the thorny borders of the poetry world accordingly faces two countervailing challenges: On one hand, she’ll need to produce something that “looks like poetry” to the audience she hopes for (usually readers of literary fiction); on the other hand, what looks like poetry to that audience is partly defined by its unfamiliarity. In order to satisfy, then, the work must somehow be both readily identifiable and mystifying.
This peculiar phenomenon helps explain the oddity of Karen Solie’s new book, “The Caiplie Caves.” This is Solie’s fifth collection of new work; her previous efforts have won an array of honors and awards, including Canada’s lucrative Griffin Prize (Solie is from Saskatchewan). Indeed, Solie is “now considered one of Canada’s best poets,” according to the back of her 2009 collection “Pigeon.” Her American debut, “The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out,” appeared in 2015; on its cover the critic Michael Hofmann declared, “Solie’s work should be read wherever English is read” — high praise for sure, even if that “should” seems a little poignant. So Solie has reached the point at which, as a poet, you begin to notice you’re being noticed, and to wonder if the attention means you should try something different.
“The Caiplie Caves” is certainly that. For one thing, it’s Solie’s first project book. In the poetry world, this vague-sounding description has a very specific meaning; it refers to collections in which many or all of the poems, rather than being about the usual variety of poetic stimuli (trees, exes, dead relatives), instead relate to a unitary subject, which will typically be a hefty political or historical matter rather than, for instance, laundry or houseplants. The advantage to the project book is that its contents are easy to describe (“readily identifiable”) even if the individual poems are filled with airy poeticisms (“mystifying”). If it sounds as if project books are usually tedious, that’s not the case — some are quite good. But in an era in which poets often need to produce collections in order to remain employed, it’s reasonable to look skeptically on a form that can resemble a paint-by-numbers kit.
The “project” here is twofold: First, we have the story of a seventh-century Scottish hermit named Ethernan who supposedly withdrew to the titular caves (which are about 20 minutes southeast of St. Andrews) to decide whether to open a monastery; and second, there is the history and culture of the coast of Fife. About a third of the book is written in the voice of Ethernan; the rest consists of lyrics wandering from Kilrenny to Tentsmuir Forest (and occasionally non-Scottish locales) under Solie’s own command.
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 (from, for example, “it’s just okay” to “the eradication of desire” in four lines) and diction plucked from every nook in the dictionary (“Aleve,” “histoplasmotic,” “griskin”). Compression, stillness and plainness are largely absent; quick shifts, volubility and references to Barthes are fully present (there are four pages of endnotes for the 105 pages of poetry here). 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. If she’s going to write about the nature of truth, she’s going to involve an “AEG 365 washer/dryer”; if she’s going to write about solitude, she’s also going to talk about “short-term RVers” trying to park to see Leonard Knight’s gloriously weird Salvation Mountain in the California desert.
You can see the best of Solie in a shorter poem like “A Lesson.” Here’s the first stanza:
The tide rises, a crowd returning from a stadium,
abstract sound of innumerable specifics
reentering the shoreline’s boroughs. Wheels clatter
on the rocks of your driveway, headlamps light the wall.
A door opens in the place in you joy leaps to.
The awkwardness of that last line echoes the vulnerable openness of its sentiment. Solie continues the tide metaphor (“the nightmare rocks and fingery weed-beds banished”) for another seven lines, and concludes: “Nothing exists in darkness that doesn’t in the light. / Once, this comforted you.” It’s a focused, intentionally ambiguous ending that feels unforced but inevitable, as if it were arriving on a wave itself. The quiet assurance is astonishing.
This is unfortunately not the case for quite a bit of the rest of “The Caiplie Caves.” There are two primary difficulties here. The first is that ventriloquizing a hermit who lived over a thousand years ago and left no written record means inventing a voice, and Solie — in some ways to her credit — can’t quite commit to the notion that she’s writing as someone other than herself. So her Ethernan swings back and forth between, on one hand, saying things like “and as my colleagues grew incapable / of speaking off-brand” and comparing an island to a car “idling at the curb in a cloud of exhaust”; and on the other hand, offering up grandiose announcements that probably wouldn’t make it into a poem if not licensed by a persona (“in this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape / thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice”). There are many reasons one might use a hybrid voice, of course; none of them change the fact that this particular voice gets old fast.
The second difficulty is that 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. For example, the first poem in “Pigeon” begins, “Oligotrophic: of lakes and rivers. The heat / an inanimate slur, wool gathering, hanging / like a bad suit.” It’s easy to be so distracted by “oligotrophic” that you don’t notice that “an inanimate slur” makes no sense (are there animate slurs?), or that the idea of heat “hanging like a bad suit” becomes less satisfying the more you think about it (Is the heat baggy? Is it mauve?). The project form seems to have aggravated this tendency. In the book’s last poem, “Clarity,” for example, the speaker has just noticed a dead bird: “When did my sixth receiver / register the hydrostatic pressure / of fluid newly at rest / between subject and object?” “My sixth receiver”? Or in another poem, trying to warm up a cold house: “I tried to convince the storage heaters / to take our relationship to the next level.” How about just, “I turned on the heater”?
“The Caiplie Caves” has its moments — “White Strangers” is a shivery take on what it feels like to be a woman at home alone at night when two men knock on your door — and Solie is much more capable than the average reading circuit regular. 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.