Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves, House of Anansi Press, 2019
Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, Gaspereau Press, 2009
With reference to ArtsEverywhere series, Polity of Literature, edited by Matthew Stadler
2020 has been a bumper year for readers. Without the usual social obligations tugging us away from our bookshelves and reading lists, we could indulge in a life of words, and the stories or ideas to which they give form. This has been a particular delight for me as the months at home with Jacob the Cat stretched on and on with seeming endlessness.
Last December a close friend gave me a copy of Karen Solie’s latest book of poetry, The Caiplie Caves. I read the poem then and it brought to mind Jan Zwicky’s poetic writings in Lyric Philosophy. Both books sat abreast on my reading table for months, their simple covers reminding me often that there were resonances between them to be explored.
The realization came to me a month ago that what I was contemplating in miniature was a polity of literature, a political space of reading and writing—one that I sensed was available to me through a close reading of the books side-by-side, and taking shape in my mind as a reader in conversation with the two writers’ words and worlds. The freedom of such a polity lies in its making—the deliberate associations made, imaginatively, without proscription or inhibition. Other polities can exist, too, in which the writers’ words are placed in association elsewhere and by others. There is no authority.
Writing now, next to my campy spruce Christmas tree dressed in tinsel and silk-wrapped orbs, with Jacob happily curled up on the tree blanket, I am immersed in a polity that is written, and read, into being by The Caiplie Caves and Lyric Philosophy.
The Caiplie Caves are an uncelebrated network of coves in Scotland, near Edinburgh, where the Firth of Forth flows into the North Sea. It’s a craggy bit of rock and scrubby brush by all descriptions, and would have been a desolate place in the 7th century when Ethernan, presumably an Irish missionary to Scotland, took up his hermitage there in one of the caves. Today the caves are used for camping, late-night parties, and Instagram photo shoots.
Karen Solie spent time as a researcher and writer inhabiting the place, sensing what could be sensed, and metabolizing that into poems in her voice and that of Ethernan’s—hers left-justified on the page, and his, right. In the preface, she notes that her writing was motivated by Ethernan’s decision to pursue the life of a hermit rather than set up a priory on the nearby Isle of May—a “choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active’….” (xi) The writer herself weighs this decision as she meditates on the life of poetic contemplation she chose to lead.
Jan Zwicky in Lyric Philosophy has laid out a programme for which, she says, the exercise of writing can be seen as an attempt to teach oneself to think; and in so doing, to encounter the unassailable limitations of language and contemplation. She writes that the depth of thinking (philosophy) can only be plumbed to the depth of our misinterpretations of language. This is not about imprecision or translation, but about human incapacity to know—which Zwicky calls “the slash in the mind.” (124)
The world is not ordered by language, but language can open up our affective capacity to be in relation to, and in resonance with, that which we cannot know or say. That this gap between language and knowing the wholeness of the world cannot be healed, is the “source of lyric’s poignancy.” (Zwicky 124) Poetic language, moving beyond description, prescription, explication, or definition, brings us the closest that any use of language can to glimpsing the world’s wholeness. It is precise language that casts a spell; it works at a cellular level beyond thought, awakening the imagination in our guts and in our loins. This is where the reader’s attention—their eros—gives form to a polity. The associations made in lyric reading, between words, images, ideas, silences, gaps, and centuries, form a political space—a polity brought into being by lyric’s poignancy.
Throughout Solie’s poems, she echoes Zwicky’s suspicions about the inability of language and thought to encompass a whole knowledge of the world. She writes, in Ethernan’s voice, “a creature isn’t thought from its shell, my knife extracts it/to nourish me wasn’t in its plan no kidding.” (43) The affective knife-edge of lyric does what thought-as-language cannot do. Something happens within us when we read poetically; it sits in our guts—we have to metabolize it rather than think it. Lyric pushes language to its limits of meaning, gesturing vaguely toward something beyond meaning. The sense of desolation that pervades Solie’s book isn’t the product of description but of affective and erotic attention. Something happens within us.
Solie takes a break from her writing desk to visit some ancient standing stones with their “powdery, topical growth,/chemical aggression from the carbon of the century.” (90) Modernity has ravaged the ancient.
Such is the nervous power of life. Symbols,
allegorical forms, language
signifying less and less
though very slowly. (90)
And then, as she drives away from the standing stones:
As if happiness felt there might shelter, and survive,
even though all that gave rise to it has passed away. (91)
It was pre-modern thought (and brawn!) that underpins the placing of the stones on which the poet muses, but what remains after thought “has passed away” is the joy of lyric’s poignancy! Zwicky writes that “lyric art is the fullest expression of the hunger for wordlessness.” (132) The stones stand in for the words.
The polity I occupy in reading Solie and Zwicky side-by-side is shaped by poetry’s affective precision and its invitation to sit with Ethernan in his cave and drink the bitter vetch that prepares in us “a place/with the broom/of metabolism—/should one be so worthy,/having sold the laptop…” (93)