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Short Haul Engine

by Karen Solie
83 pages,
ISBN: 1894078179


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Artfully Driven Poetics
by Patrick Watson

The intriguing Starnino/Tisserand arguments over Christian B¸k's Eunoia (Books in Canada, Sept 2002) reminded me that this clever but vacuous stunt had actually won the Griffin prize for poetry. Regrettably B¸k displaced at least one contender whose words evoke experience, feelings, literary echoes, and gusts of meaning and light: Karen Solie's Short Haul Engine. Solie is a truck-driving daughter of Moose Jaw, and a poet who ranges from raunchy humour through the dark despair of desiccated love to the triumph of animal and of spirit. Her voice is very much in tune with that of the U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, although Solie is tougher than Collins, more stretched, aggressive.

Take four Tylenol with that last sweet shot.
Morning comes, you'll be a prince
on the phones, greasing wheels, making it go
with a clear head. Your guts will come around.

That's how she starts a hilarious tirade called "A Treatise on the Evils of Modern Homeopathic Medicines."

"Someone tries to sell you blue green algae," she asks, or . . .

. . . Vitamin C? Eat an orange
for Chrissakes. Send that joker back
to the co-op, to his hypocrite cronies
drumming in the woods reading Bly by night
Rand by day.

In a few short lines she burlesques half a dozen fads, makes us laugh¨even at ourselves¨and establishes the narrator as person. When you turn the page the person changes, and yet, in its totality, Short Haul Engine resonates with a recognizable voice, all the way through, even though it puts on a different wardrobe from piece to piece, crOpe in one piece, motley in another. But you hear that you are in the same place.

No: not the same place, but the same book. Listen to the change of place in "Sturgeon." It's a change of place but it is the same voice. A group of kids are contemptuous of this pelagic, ugly (and¨they think¨inedible), armoured fish, deep in a warm polluted river, and "on an afternoon mean as a hook," they catch him. Like Elizabeth Bishop's famous "Fish" (1940)¨he already has old lost lures hanging from his lip¨they pull him to the surface, leaving him disdainfully to die, but:

. . . when he began to heave and thrash over yards
of rock
to the water's edge and, unbelievably in,
we couldn't hold him though we were teenaged
and bigger than everything. Could not contain
the old current he had for a mind, its pull,
and his body a muscle called river, called spawn.

Solie's subtle and intricate deployment of rhythm and assonance, the interplay of soft consonants and back vowels, nearly disappears beneath this narrative, which transfigures not only the palaeolithic creature but his at first contemptuous (and seemingly contemptible ) tormentors. The buried, near invisibility of the technique draws us over those yards of rock and then up into the triumph of the animal's determination without our noticing what has happened verbally¨verbal sleight of hand, misdirection.

Visible and audible technique is often a delight in poetry (though seldom in novels or documentary films.) But it is always, even when delightful, a distraction from the core of experiential and narrative poems, and one of Solie's impressive powers is her concealment of the art as she honours the images and emotions within it.

She then changes gear again, a page or two later, with "Meteorology."

A collision of fronts. Two thick systems
locked in downdraft forcing birds
to the ground. . . .

We fucked in his car, and I will never
drive again, remembering instead
what it's like to be young,
a passenger
carried into the eye of it. Ozone
and gasoline, fern smell, rain
of hands. A nightbloomer, narcissus,
the old Ford's doors thrown wide
and a whole storm pouring in.

Much of the work in Short Haul Engine is about driving¨she is a truck driver as well as a poet and teacher¨and the time she has spent on the road comes to the page with a discernible shape. After a few poems a pattern¨or perhaps an intention¨emerges. There is something about the endings, their gathering together of the threads subtly¨

of
to tell me to take care.

And in "Design Flaw" what appears to be a wry note on auto-mechanics slaps the reader in the face, as it concludes, with its real metaphoric burden:

considering our contraption, its constant backfiring
and exposed wires. The bad shocks.
Tricky choke. Our wild rides
among heat and oils of internal combustion.
The volatility of bones.

Unlike the book that actually took the Griffin Prize in 2002, Short Haul Engine asks to be picked up again because its metaphors are iridescent moments of life, not just pointless puzzles cleverly solved before our very eyes. Not sleight of hand in the form of flourishes to show how brilliant we are, but concealed brilliance to draw us into perceptions about what we might have mistakenly taken for ordinary moments: a glass of whisky on the bar, a patch of black ice on the road ahead, which lies in wait (from "Skid"):

Black ice lays low
laughs off the social work
of salt and sand.
One more for the road,
it chuckles, spreading. Come on,
You can pass this guy.

Karen Solie and Billy Collins both do one thing extraordinarily well: they raise the commonplace into the light. Whether it's movies or jazz, a label on a tin, going to bed after a party, or an insincere kiss, these poets have been struck by shafts of meaning in the day-by-day stuff we all share. Isn't this what the memorable poets have been doing, since Sappho? Noticing things?

They remind us of why it is that, just before switching off the reading lamp before sleep, we feel compelled to arrange those ordinary but important little things on our bedside table into . . . some kind of pattern. ˛

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