Knotting-Off the Aughts #3: Karen Solie’s Modern and Normal
Place of Creation: Saskatchewan et. al.
Press: Brick (London, ON)
Mode of Acquisition: I’m trying very hard to remember this. There are a handful of clues in the book itself. For one, my copy is signed. It reads (and I feel so awkward revealing an author’s inscription, it seems a breach of both my privacy and theirs): For Jake. Congratulations on your book, and all the best.–Karen. This would date the purchase to 2007 or so at latest, thus making my inability to remember things a little more embarrassing. Also, someone has gone through the book and circled various pages. These do not appear to be in either my hand, or that of the inscriber. For the record, the poems circled are: Nice, To Have and Have Not, Bomb Threat Checklist, and Montana. I can not understand what these poems have in common over their cousins in the book. The enigma expands…
Status of Personal Copy: It’s on the shelf, baby! Regular readers will note my general incompetence as a book collector; that past Knotting-Off entries have been lost to forgetting, to a sailor’s trunk, and even to a river. But Karen Solie is perhaps the only poet whose entire life’s work sits on my book shelf. This may be related to my Solie fandom being a predominantly Toronto-bred phenomenon and thus safe from earlier relocations, though I believe I bought Short Haul Engine in Newfoundland…oh shit, and I bought Modern and Normal off Kitty Lewis at the Brick Books table at the 2007 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival! Oh, blessed memory triggers, is there anything you can’t unearth?
..As if this has always
been happening and you’ve entered the coincidence of your life
with itself, the way a clock’s ticks will hit the beat of a Hank Williams song,
the best one, on the radio, fridge hum tuned without a quaver
to the sustained notes of the bridge. As if
you’ve arrived at where the hinge
There’s a quotation making the rounds on the internet lately. It’s from Christian Bok, controversial salesman and one of my favourite poets. Requoted from Rob Taylor’s Roll of Nickels blog, it states “I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know… You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that [discipline] actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.” This is the kind of thing provocative people often say, fully aware that the statement is so full of holes that it acts more as a natural frame for its counterarguments than as a cogent rule of thought. I submit that being ignorant to things is not proof of intellectual laziness, but often evidence of a full and humble interaction with the immensity and complexity of the knowable world.
Enter Karen Solie and her polymath poetics, wherein a single speaker can pick up elements of an introductory physics textbook, a country song, and a Wikipedia entry’s worth of understanding about how rifles work, and spin these disparate worlds of knowledge into a triangulated point in the poet’s own memory. Solie is our most modern poet, in that her work is most reflective of the 21st century’s great epistemological paradox: we are confused by the scope of our available knowledge, and we don’t know quite what to do with it. Her work is often choked with information, taken from subcultures, jargons, and fields of thought so divergent that their juxtaposition is a sort of textual dating mechanism. The first poets of the 20th century scoured the world for a poetics of a baffling multiplicity, the first poets of this century need to look no further than a used book store, a flea market, or a Google search to be equally baffled. Information is everywhere, and so when it is enjambed together into a poem like Chance (where, in one four line graph, the references are: chaos theory, “The Shot Heard Round the World”, the development of human flight, and carpentry) there’s a naturalness, a self-apparent streak, that none of the early modernists, or mid-century Americans, possessed.
What’s ironic about Bok’s statement as it applies to Modern and Normal is that the massive borderlands between the known and the unknown in Solie’s work are the product of a voracious appetite for knowledge, not laziness of any kind. Solie shows a real Protestant work ethic in her poetry, and self improvement is a theme throughout Modern and Normal, whether played out through the human body (Cardio Room, Young Women’s Christian Association) or the human mind (Science and the Single Girl). Never in our history has the immensity of the things we don’t know shit about made itself more apparent. A curious investigator then becomes a sort of self-educating dervish, reacting to the chaos of the knowable landscape by learning things chaotically. One follows a thread (to choose among Solie’s, let’s say German philosophy) jumping from thinker to thinker, across the historical concerns that shape them, into geography. art, sports, military theory, always returning to the personal, the pre-assumed, as a shifting point of reference. But to know a little bit about many things is the reward for mastering nothing. This is what Bok is complaining about (albeit quite likely in a devil’s advocate, self-deprecating kind of way), but it’s also the tension that makes a poet like Solie among our most engaging.
I can say, in general, that Karen Solie’s poems tend to take their knowledge from the outside (public) world and their wisdom from a private (personal) one. It’s that tension that leads to moments of grace wherein aphorisms as keen and textured as the lines “This/is the man-made moment” just fall out the end of the list of shooting techniques lined up for the first two-thirds of “An Argument for Small Arms”, as natural and assured as another tip on stance or breathing. Here is accrued knowledge giving way, reducing, to a single original idea. The epistemological nightmare of the digital age, boiled down. This is why Solie is our decade’s defining Canadian poet, and this is most apparent in Modern and Normal, between her two other great books—the more personal Short Haul Engine, and this year’s Pigeon, wherein her novice self-education became a little more erudite, and a little less scared and in love with the world.
There’s an essay I like to read every six months or so; I read it when feeling overwhelmed. Typically I go to it when staggered by the massive weight of unread books on my shelf, but the same urge can grow out of the massive weight of unread books in the world. And of unvisited places, unconsidered viewpoints, unheard words. It’s Zadie Smith’s introduction to the first edition of David Egger’s annual Best American “Non-Required Reading” Series and it’s made up of a half-dozen responses to quotes on the subjects of learning, reading, and, in a broad sense, self-improvement. The general narrative of the essay concerns Smith’s slack-jawed reaction to the immensity of the canonical British education, and her gradual acceptance of the impossibility of knowing all the things she really wants to know. It’s an essay I’d love to put in the hands of every freshman English major in the country. Solie’s interests are even greater than Smith’s (her preoccupations transcend literature and philosophy to include sports, mechanics, chemistry, and math) but the great object lessons of Modern and Normal and the Smith essay are similar, and this is likely why both are recurring literary comforts to me. Here are two more young people born middle class (or lesser), with voracious appetites and little concern for epistemological patterning or educational career-tracks, at play in a knowledge that their ancestors weren’t privy to, equal parts overjoyed and overwhelmed by the act.
A poet like Karen Solie is appealing to the poetry-reading minority because, like them, she is left both confused and enthused by the world of knowledge, and she is willing to factor that confusion into her artistic practice. The world is vast, and we’ve filled it with insatiable and terrifying things. What us adventurers really need is a tour guide, an interpreter. Someone to stand beside us and experience the same awe, be humbled by the same history. That Solie is talented enough to move so easily between the intake of information and the output of wisdom makes her something more than just a fellow-traveller, but our speaker box, our flagship. Valedictorian of the class of the spastically attentive. As Modern and Normal explains in its final two lines, she “believes one idea. and then another. That is, in the instant, at the time.”