Friday, August 30, 2019

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie

What I'm reading at the moment - The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie (Picador)
In her fifth collection, Canadian poet Karen Solie uses as a theme the Caiplie Caves on the shore of the Firth of Forth in Scotland. In poems which flit between modern times and her exploration of the area and the chaos between the fall of Rome and the emergence of modern Europe, she contemplates life, grief, confusion, faith, among the realities of war and power.

The poems are written in Solie’s own voice and also in the voice of St Ethernan, the seventh-century Irish missionary to Scotland who retreated to these caves to decide whether to establish a priory on nearby May Island or pursue a life of solitude, a choice between the active and the contemplative life.

One of the many attractions and delights of the collection is the use it makes of found material, early and modern Christian texts, natural history books, Hegel, St Augustine, Barthes, even The Invertebrate Fauna of the Firth of Forth, 1881, by George Leslie and William A Herdman.

This makes for a glorious mix of language and tone, with a refreshing breadth of vision and reference. I saw Karen Solie read at the Cork International Poetry Festival a couple of years ago and was impressed.

from The Desert Fathers

With or without a bindle of crystal meth,
they made their anchorage in Egypt’s
Wadi El Natrun, or the dismantled
Marine Corps training base of Slab City, California,
hard skills in transition, taking losses
and burning, if not with a sensible fire,
in the pride of specialized knowledge.
Snakeman relocates the red diamond rattlesnake
and northern Mojave rattlesnake
from residents’ trailers to his own to live
alongside him with the scorpions and guard dogs;
it’s tough to have riches and not love them.
St. Anthony sold his land, gave the money to
the poor, yet in his Outer Mountain sanctuary cried
I desire peace, but these bad thoughts
will not leave me.

It’s interesting to compare a version of this poem published online in The Walrus with the version published in the book – lots of changes in line breaks and some deletions.

I’m particularly interested in her use of found material because my next collection, to be published 2020 I hope will contain a number of “found” poems. It can be difficult to know exactly how to attribute various borrowings. Solie does this by the inclusion of comprehensive “Notes” at the back of the book. It seems to works well and doesn’t break the flow of the text but I did find myself checking now and then to see if a line or stanza were borrowed and from where.

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