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Observe and report: Two new poetry collections offer different ways of looking at identity

Karen Solie

James Langer

The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out
By Karen Solie, Anansi, 86 pages, $19.95

Their Biography: an organism of relationships
By kevin mcpherson eckhoff, BookThug, 103 pages, $18

It's one thing to be a brilliant writer. It's a whole other thing to make your readers feel like collaborators in your brilliance and not just witnesses to it. Griffin Prize-winning poet Karen Solie's superpower has always been in her ability to make complex feats of association seem easy; where other poets might lean an image against an idea and hope the connection between them comes through, the feeling of reading Solie at her best is like moving through a maze on a retractable leash. You weave your way through image and theory, vernacular and high diction, concrete particulars and sprawling philosophy, at what feels like your own pace – and then when the turn comes you're reeled back, swiftly, toward the idea that's been controlling things all along.

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This level of control has always been a hallmark of Solie's voice, but in her fourth collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, it feels compounded, refined. The poems here deal with many of the same thematic concerns that have marked her earlier work. Bitumen, the book's longest work, is a stunning (as in "well crafted," but also like "very frightening") meditation on nature, the oil industry and human interference. Others (such as the three apartment-poems Be Reasonable, Mole and Roof Repair and Squirrel Removal) trace the uneasy relationship between individuals and the environment on a smaller, more domestic scale. A speaker who once "grew up comforted by coyotes in the evening" now sprays her place for pests, a mole in the driveway "undermines" its flagstones and squirrels in the attic chew quietly on the wiring, bringing "the inferno" ever closer.

Much of the book is also concerned with the mechanics of observation and perspective, and it's in the poems dealing with travel and transit that we're allowed a glimpse into the philosophy underpinning Solie's whole project. The poems Rental Car, Via, The World and Life Is a Carnival are spaced out across the book, but if you put them together, they play a chord – something about what it means to be a participant in and an observer of a landscape, something about distance and closeness, remove.

The subjects and speakers in these poems move through the world in a car, on a train, on an enormous luxury cruise liner or from home, where they "trail Google Earth's invisible pervert" through the street views of the towns in which they grew up. In each case, they occupy the curious position of being in swift motion and completely still at the same time. The eye of these poems moves fluidly, like a tracking shot, from history to the present, from interior monologue to exterior image – one second you're watching "hills of scrap aluminum glitter/like a picnic ground in heaven" and the next, "you are a type, too. Bereft, content, bored witless, anticipatory, according/to your natures."

Who that "you" is, exactly, feels as mutable as it is significant. So many of Solie's poems happen in the second person or the plural, which is more than just a stylistic tic or a simple habit; these are the narrative modes that give readers (and writer) the most room to be both the subject and object of a poem at the same time. This is the complicated balance the poems in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out strike, again and again: Solie lets you feel like you're the one directing their focus, even as she makes you just another part of the landscape she's working to take in.

Speaking of perspective: kevin mcpherson eckhoff's Their Biography: an organism of relationships offers a different way of looking at identity. The book was built out of a conceptual project where eckhoff asked friends, acquaintances and strangers to help him write a "collaborative biography" – to write the story of him, from beginning to end. The resulting work is a collage of voices, forms, styles, stories and images that end up saying far less about eckhoff himself than they do about the weird, flexible nature of the self and the different ways we conceptualize and document it.

If you're not a pre-existing fan of conceptual poetry, one of the things that can make it hardest to approach is the way theory and practice don't always seem to square on the page. Put another (grossly oversimplistic) way: Sometimes even the most interesting ideas make for work that feels ungenerous to its readers, all challenge and no reward. This book isn't like that; it's wide-ranging and it roams, but it's also incredibly playful, and the experience of reading it is fun even when it's frustrating. Eckhoff isn't bludgeoning readers with a thesis, nor is he asking us to swallow a sea of ideas and words. He's just examining – and messing around with – our ideas about what a self is.

Emma Healey is The Globe's poetry reviewer.

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