Karen Solie achieved near-instant acclaim with the multiple award nominations and wins heaped on her first collection, Short Haul Engine. If her excellent follow-up, Modern and Normal, didn’t prove outright that Solie wasn’t resting on her laurels, then Pigeon, the Saskatchewan-raised, Toronto-based poet’s latest effort, should put all doubts to rest.
If I were to coin a genre for this work, I’d call it “dystopian sublime.” Solie has a knack for limning scenes of industrial wastelands – be they factories in east Etobicoke or Chemical Alley’s refineries “[a]t the nominal limits of Edmonton” – and the going-nowhere lives of atomized, disenfranchised individuals. Her poems make them beautiful without romanticizing them.
Many of the poems are explicitly concerned with problems of technology and the environment, but they don’t pander to any simple political stance. In one, the speaker gets pissed off about the “car alarms, panic attacks, canine/ episodes, migraines,// childhood hearing loss” caused by the CNE air show, but the rhythmic élan of the poem’s catalogues makes it more lively invective than dumbed-down diatribe.
Pigeon’s first line is a modified dictionary definition: “[o]ligotrophic: of lakes and rivers.” The book is indeed river-riddled and lake-pocked. One thing that makes Solie’s work so appealing is that it is as in touch with the wide open spaces and waterways of this country as it is with the concrete canyons and sprawl of its polyglot cities, where most of us now live. She is especially good at writing about the intersections of city and wilderness, such as Toronto’s “[rivers] underfoot,/ paved over” or the man-made waterfall on Edmonton’s High Level Bridge.
Pigeon doesn’t represent a departure from – or reinvention of – Solie’s established style, which is lyrical but gritty, intellectual but tough-talking, colloquial yet elegant. But she isn’t standing still, either. One of the weaknesses of Solie’s earlier work, an over-reliance on anti-poetic glibness, is notably diminished in this book. She hasn’t abandoned sarcasm and wry irony, but modulates them better as she delves deeper into the social and geological bedrock of our civilization. This is her strongest book yet.