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Book Reviews

Modern and Normal

by Karen Solie

Toronto-based poet Karen Solie’s sophomore collection goes a long way toward fulfilling the promise augured by her Griffin-nominated rookie hit, Short Haul Engine. Think of all the dichotomous categories into which most contemporary poetry gets slotted and/or slots itself: pastoral vs. urban; proletarian vs. intellectual; innovative vs. traditional; lyrical vs. ironic. Now forget those categories, because Solie’s restless intelligence roams through all these parceled plots with impunity, with grit and grace and pithy wit.

Although none of these poems adhere to strict patterns of metre or rhyme, Solie embeds metric schemes within her free-verse line and drops well-timed rhymes, all of which helps make her lines stick to the brainpan long after they’ve been read. In some poems, gophers get “shot … to shit,”while in others the poet grapples with the ghosts of Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Not surprisingly, given these extremes, the unifying motif of the collection is “in betweenness,” the state of being “modern and normal.”

Solie evokes this contemporary malaise with both humour and pathos. She mocks mawkish shopworn tropes, advising us to remember that rain “has nothing to do with love/or grief,” but doesn’t veer to the opposite extreme, as many earnestly ironic hipsters are wont to do. She is leery of the lyric first-person point of view – one excellent sonnet is a “Love Song of the Unreliable Narrator” and several other poems are dramatic monologues – but this suspicion has the effect of making the lyrical moments all the more persuasive.

The book is not without weaknesses. I wish Solie had dismantled the scaffolding of epigraphs and explanatory notes because the poems stand so ably on their own. The handful of found poems scattered throughout fit well with the collection and demonstrate the poet’s magpie eye for the improbably poetic, but are in and of themselves less interesting than her original work. Solie also employs a lot of short declarative and imperative sentences and sentence fragments – something she jokingly points out in “Self-Portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations.” It’s an effective technique, but one that risks becoming gimmicky through overuse.

But these are quibbles about a truly excellent book. If only this level of performance were normal in modern poetry, we’d be living in a golden age.