Modern and Normal by Karen SolieModern and Normal opens with the etymology for the verb “to dwell.” In Old English to dwell means “to lead astray, deceive; to hinder,” and lead to our current use when we mean “to lodge, reside, live,” to pull up out of time, outside of movement, to make a home. Something solid in the flux of being. These poems move sometimes like a rambling astray, sometimes like a lead heavy pedal, but always push forward, conscious of deceptive sidebars, those which suggest a reality other than movement into the future. Not any particular future, but the future, ferocious for its relentless inevitability.
They move with successive continuity and little rest. But the few pillows of reflexive stillness hit like ice blink:
white glare on the underside
of a distant cloud caused by reflection
from a mass of ice which may itself be too far away
to be visible.
Cool and bare, Solie’s lines run indefatigable until a sudden shoulder of clarity opens them up. But these poems never hold, never stay in one spot. And despite this steadfast, rationed pace, there is an absolutely precise sense of presence.
Don McKay qualifies this presence stating, “Karen Solie’s work reminds me that there is at the heart of metaphor a delicious, amoral joy.” Time, in these poems, is an indiscriminate process running to years that are neither kind nor cruel in themselves. From “Mirror”:
Evade your eye. Try to see as others do
what is desired or refused. What went wrong.
Or right, then wrong. Objectively, what hangs.
Pull yourself together. Years are neither kind
nor cruel. You drag on.
In “Lucky,” the state of being grateful is an awareness of the amorality of things, without associations, it is “the condition/ of strangers.” A stranger is obliged to “a brand new/ minute.” The normal projections of desire and rejection are lifted, although a certain naivety is left and you’re without the sense/ to give bad coffee a miss.”
Solie’s poems can be challenging and acrobatic. I think of “Science and the Single Girl” which begins with a visceral, carnivorous image and moves into a complicated algebra, entirely cerebral. Through these tripwire lines are islands of clarity, rung holds, or the still sight on the peak of an inhale. By the time you come to the “mean solar day,” you get the main design of this atmospheric love story.
In Carmine Starnino’s introduction to The New Canon, an anthology which includes five poems by Solie, he writes, “I chose poems which drew on devices often recognized as traditional, but by improvisingly sidestepping convention were able to unearth an apt, unforeseen language.” Solie’s poems suggest a willowy formality, but she dodges formal undertows with a vivacity of style that works through its form to reveal the tingly satisfaction in raw, unassociated language.
At the end we are given a roundabout conclusion to the condition of being Modern and Normal:
Behind café glass, a man leans
to his companion as though he loves her. You believe one idea,
and then another. That is, in the instant, at the time.
One whorl away from the moment out of time, its soft deception, is the moment fastened in time, clocking off. The instant of an idea “and then another.” It is time conceived of as moments unconnected and unfettered to notions neither kind nor cruel. It is in keeping with Solie’s amoral joy. However, there is reassurance in this stark view; as if, more or less, everything’s okay.
Modern and Normal by Karen Solie