Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Pigeon, by Karen Solie

I came to Karen Solie’s 2009 collection Pigeon with some pretty high expectations, not only because of the cavalcade of awards it garnered (including the 2010 Griffin Prize) but because I loved her first book of poems, Short Haul Engine, so much. The great strength of Solie’s writing, evident in many places throughout Pigeon, is how she creates just enough of a gap between authorial intention and what ends up on the page for the reader to create his own meanings, his own moments of recognition. It’s a tricky balance for any poet – to keep one’s verse within that sweet spot between a precise experience and the universal resonance of any experience.

Pigeon is rife with exactly this kind of poetry. Solie can describe a high school reunion, a tractor, an air show or gardening, and blow out a specific detail into a shared moment of illumination. Take, for example, an early poem in the collection, “The Girls”:

… The high school reunion
was a disaster. Our husbands got wasted
and fought one another, then with an equanimity

we secretly despised, made up over
anthem rock, rye and water.
Our grudges are prehistoric and literal.

It seems they will survive us. The girls
share a table, each pitying the others their looks,
their men, their clothes, their lives.

It’s the “we secretly despised” part that makes this passage, this poem, a knockout for me. It’s ostensibly about a high school reunion, but in those three simple words Solie makes it a poem about gender, about how men and women process conflict – and each other – differently. It’s amazing how, with a few well-chosen and very specific details, she’s able to imbue this poem with three-dimensional characters: the fact that the husbands are listening to anthem rock and drinking rye and water tells you everything you need to know about them, and about this situation.

There are similar brushstrokes of brilliant description throughout Pigeon, using the subtlest of metaphor with uncanny skill. In the piece “In New Brunswick,” Solie says: “My industry fails me. The first person fails me/ utterly, again and again, like a landlord.” Her poem “The Cleaners” describes the absolute blandest that resides between late fall and early winter: “November was grey/ and December moreso, light adopting/ a Scandinavian economy, but without/ the social programs.” These kinds of comparisons do what they’re supposed to – bend the reader’s brain with a newfound tendon.

Despite all this, I have to admit that there were times when Pigeon left me a little disappointed. There are certain poems – “Migration,” “Geranium” and “X” come to mind – that felt a little too self conscious, a little too much like something trying to sound like a brilliant poem without really being one. Again, a delicate equilibrium for any poet – to make sure each piece reads like it bubbled up organically from the soil rather than forged with a heroic (and often contrived) act of will. Solie is not always successful on this count in Pigeon. In the end, despite the collection’s many accomplishments and moments of delight, I found myself enjoying it slightly less than Short Haul Engine.

Of course, don’t take my word for it. Poems – indeed, whole collections – often morph after multiple readings, becoming something more or less than what you thought the first time around. The best thing to do is go away and read both of these books yourself, and others by Solie. I for one have no doubts that I’ll come back to her work, again and again and again.

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