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Karen Solie, The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out
Toronto: Anansi, 2015.

Karen Solie’s fourth collection unsettles and exposes the false comforts of stasis. That these are poems of change and travel is evident from their titles alone—“Rental Car,” “Via”—but mobility is temporally as well as spatially contingent. Poems offer transitions in and out of the familiar, whether on foot or through “Google Earth’s invisible pervert.” Distance can exacerbate difference, or occlude it. Thus while the book is thematically tight, it is not preciously so. Invasions become forms of extreme locality, questions of who or what belongs: bedbugs, gentrification, “the seeds of Walmart / sprouting in the demographic.” If “We are all locals now” then no one is. Named places, like “Sault Ste. Marie,” act not only as destinations, but also as sites of constant movement, conceptual as well as physical border towns, their alien-ness exaggerated by speakers always just passing through.

In the appropriately ambitious poem “The World,” which names a cruise ship, the traditional intersection of the privilege of property ownership with that of viewership (“And the eye— / the eye devours”) allows access to all geographies, eliding difference and subsequently revealing a psychologically threatening lack of doubt: “But doubt exists only / where questions exist. The World satisfies its own conditions.” The titular poem, “The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out,” occupies the book’s exact midpoint. It ends, “It appears it could go either way,” suggesting an obvious fulcrum—but this is not Frosts’ “The Road Not Taken,” where the poem’s setting only provides occasion for a speaker’s personal change. Rather, it is the land itself that changes: suburban sprawl and resource exploitation refuse to bend to any conventional lyric self-realization. Indeed lyric becomes a problematic category by the end of the book, in “Against Lyric”: “Odd, that an excess / should produce such hollowness, tin bucket / racketing down the endless metal staircase within.”

As in her previous collections, Solie’s language is unfailingly intelligent, embracing the objectively specific but with a penetrative subjective eye, which does not dispense with all facets of the lyric tradition, but here criticizes its particular heirloom quality: “Wheeled out on special occasions under / gold-plated anniversary clocks.” In an earlier poem, lyric’s introspection instead translates into social media and surveillance: “Crowd studded with cameraphones”; “Now always we look upon ourselves”; “infernal recurrence / without beginning or end.” The long, beautiful poem “Bitumen” presents inevitable environmental disaster as “Collectible / photochrome postcards,” while “we take selfies, post them, and can’t undo it.”

“How difficult could it be // to stay here?” the speaker asks of Sault Ste. Marie, but this could be a question of any town, house or memory in the book. “To stay”—in lyric’s captured moment, Keats’s famous urn—in the end may not be difficult, but it is an inadequate response to the environmental and developmental challenges of Solie’s moving world, which is, searingly and perceptively, our world: “Reflection—there’s no solace in it.”

 

Lise Gaston’s poetry has appeared in Arc, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, Numero Cinq, Prairie Fire, and is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry 2015. She lives in Berkeley, California.

 

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