Karen Solie's long-awaited new poetry collection, Pigeon, considers a range of nearly nostalgic subjects. Massive house-sized Texan tractors stall on Saskatchewan farms; a Canadian samples herring as part of her soul-searching journey in Norway; Torontonians drift around the "misery of heritage buildings" while on holiday in an unnamed Ontario lakeside town. Yet Solie doesn't allow sentimentality to nest. Instead, she slants her images to the wry, or to the mildly detached. "Circling,/ a red-tailed hawk pinpoints the moving detail/ of his meal in the big picture. We love him/ from afar. Soon, we will have to have him" ( The World of Plants).
Canadians inhabit subtle spaces between admiration and indulgence in some of our group habits: We talk about the weather, we obsess about the landscape. More than a dozen poems in Pigeon address ways we inhabit, and often overuse, our natural environment, specifically rivers and lakes.
Take the musical Bow River Preludes, for example. The Bow River can be so easily charted according to tourist-luring attractions, flowing "south/ along the golf course to its downstream designation:/ the best trophy trout destination in North America./ Tour buses come and go, everyone suitably amazed ..." The second stanza turns geologic: rock flour makes the water "a frozen mineral green," and, "All colours/ of the light spectrum are absorbed/ but for what these particles reflect." After this feint of scientific fact, Solie tightens her metaphor at last: that inorganic green is "a measure of our limits" and "an orientation/ to which the mind returns."
The sway between human-to-human and human-to-landscape orientation informs Pigeon as a whole. There is no perfectly balanced, ethical way to live: "The honourable life is like timing. One might not have the talent for it" ( Wager). Thus Solie blends dry humour with anxiety about environmental damage. "Pity the diatoms, first to go, trout eggs choked by sediment in gravelly runoff," she writes in Four Factories, then wryly notes that animal rendering plants can offer job security. And the turquoise colour of a potato-chip factory is "not entirely baffling/ … for who would want/ their snacks to issue from a dour scene?"
Read an excerpt from Karen Solie's new collection
As much as Pigeon sings with metaphor and language-love, it is also infused with a subtle formality that feels like listening to the echoing footsteps of someone walking by deep in thought. "Our separateness among separate things unites us," Solie writes in Frontier, and I realize that reading Pigeon brings to mind the thoughtful essays Don McKay penned for his 2001 collection Vis à Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry & Wilderness.
In his view, and I would say in Solie's writing, the wilderness is "as close at hand as a flat tire or a missed step. It is one function of art to provide safe defamiliarizing moments, when the mask of utility gets lifted and we waken to that residual wilderness without the inconvenience of breakdown or disaster." In wilderness, perhaps self-discovery, but also distance and solitude exist. Solie provides all three.
Meg Walker self-orients between the wilder Yukon and the more urbanized Vancouver.