The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out
House of Anansi Press
110 Spadina Avenue
Toronto, ON M5V 2K4
2015, 112 pp., $18.95, ISBN: 9781770898196
Karen Solie’s new collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015) confronts the current historical impasse of society’s pervasive reduction of being, culture, and nature to austerity, alienation, and degradation. Consistent with her previous books, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005), the Griffin Poetry Prize–awarded Pigeon (2009), and The Living Option: Selected Poems (2013), Solie continues to cultivate the rural and working class soil in which her identity and poetry are rooted. But her poetry is not simply the romanticization of the working classes who labour with their hands and operate heavy machinery, often in invisibility. As her new collection attests, she brings a critical political and philosophical sensibility to the figures and locations amongst which she circulates. In the process, she unearths hidden girders underpinning Western culture while casting an eye upon future destinations. On the two-way street that she travels, Solie surveys the traffic between insouciant luxury and reckless destruction.
Building upon the Odyssean archetype of the road, Solie locates a philosophy of being at the root of Western poetry and culture reaching back to Ancient Greece. Her immediate concerns are with the passage of time. In “The Corners,” she stands startled by the waves of gentrification hitting a familiar city:
Let me off in the primary
neighbourhood, I’ll walk the traffic’s bank,
its decorative plantings and contradictory signage, the current,
I can’t brave it.
Not only is she lamenting the passage of time in terms of aging, she is also registering the speed with which a variety of neighbourhoods in many Canadian cities are being gentrified. While this is the poetry of midlife, it is neither regressive nor maudlin but mature and dignified. The flow of traffic running through the city is a force whose course the speaker seems powerless to alter.
As a pattern of meaning, the flow of traffic resonates with philosophical undertones. In the midst of such traffic, the need or desire to set a course in life becomes absurdly frustrating and disorienting. The idle fantasy of being able to veer in another direction indefinitely only increases the confusion. Despite the desire for infinity, the reality of finitude exerts pressure to stick to a course in life. The resistance to set a finite course spans the entire collection. In the titular poem, for instance, the speaker describes a scene from a road trip:
the rental car
stops at the highway intersection, a filthy
violent storm under the hood. It yields
to traffic from both directions.
It appears it could go either way.
A peculiar imprecision straddles the line between the grammar and rhetoric of this passage. The grammatical ambiguity of beginning a sentence with a pronoun raises confusion as to which antecedent it refers. Does the “It” refer to the rental car or to the violence under the hood? In a gesture of condensation, the pronoun refers to both. In a gesture of displacement, the pronoun also refers to the violence that the combustion engine wreaks upon the environment. The drive to render visible the invisible philosophical and political realities courses throughout the collection.
The struggle to choose a path is not merely personal but social. The title The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out encapsulates precisely how the two-way street of poetic language transforms the literal into the figurative; in the process, the figure resonates with Wallace Stevens’s metaphor for poetry from “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’” Being attuned to the environmental degradation wrought upon Canada’s landscape and society—not to mention the globe—registers the return of the repressed reality that connects the car to the tar sands. In proper visionary terms, what may seem an otherwise pleasant road trip resounds with the dread that looms in the atmosphere:
An inaudible catastrophic orchestra
is tuning, we feel it in the air
impelled before it, as a pressure
on the brain.
Yet the dread does not entirely transform into despair. As the car “appears it could go either way,” Solie offers the potential for taking a left turn away from degradation. However, the car moves as if it drove itself automatically. What is worrisome about the car driving itself suggests either the problem of alienation, the lack of resolve, or loss of control on the part of the driver to steer a course amidst the “traffic from both directions.” The boldness to take agency by steering away from the cusp of social and environmental catastrophe is crucial.
Solie’s poetry is located at the juncture of this awareness as her verse records how these problems are not only rapidly unfolding but also gaining traction in public consciousness. As a result of such rapid shifts in these harsh realities and the inability to disavow them, the promise of this collection suggests her future work will look very different from its predecessors. Solie is laying on the horn for everyone to change tack.
In her exploration of the road as an image reaching back to Ancient Greece, Solie urges thinking about it in its most fundamental existential sense. In “Bitumen,” she addresses the primordial tension between stability and the various countervailing forces that threaten that stability and compel openness: “The only other living thing in situ, in the open pit where swims / the bitumen, extra brilliant, dense, massive, in the Greek asphaltos, / ‘to make stable,’ ‘to secure’”. In the midst of bringing civilizational stability to society by way of the tarmac, the destructive disorder of the tar sands exploitation is ironically wrought upon the world.
The language of the Ancient Greeks contains precisely the resonances of such a primordial understanding of being and politics. In Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, for instance, Heidegger discusses the πόλις (“the site”; “traffic”) as the space upon which various conflicting forces circulate:
πόλις is the πόλος, the pole, the place around which everything appearing to the Greeks as a being turns in a peculiar way. The pole is the place around which all beings turn and precisely in such a way that in the domain of this place beings show their turning and their condition.
The traffic circulating upon roads turning in and out of one another reflect the way in which Solie frames the argument for a fundamental rethinking of the nature of shaping social relations. While “[t]he πόλις determines ‘the political’” in the broadest social sense, it can also be registered in the most intimate bonds of the husband and wife in Solie’s poem, “The World”: “How the silent energy coursed between us.”.
In light of the circulating traffic of conflicting forces afflicting being, the existential crux of making a decision turns upon the cold confrontation with the reality that correlations exist between injustice and privilege. While such discomforting truths are often deliberately obscured through rhetorical stratagems such as displacement, Solie demands not only that they be exposed but also that they are no longer disavowed. She likewise nudges the reader to recognize the harsh truths of the day. Adapting the renowned modernist poetic strategy of Eliot’s objective correlative, Solie wields this poetic device as a tool for training the reader to make such critical connections. She takes what (in “Hamlet”) Eliot calls
a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
Where Eliot focuses on objective formulations that evoke the desired emotions, Solie inflects the technique to include political content rather than mere sentimental impressions. Invoking the wreckage of history unfolding from the rearview gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, she sounds the following lament in “Museum of the Thing”:
Sad storm of objects becoming things,
the objective correlative, tired of me
as I am of it. I embody everything it hates
about itself. People don’t stand in for each other
the way things do.
The disdain for the objective correlative arises not so much for Eliot’s concept per se but rather his formalist rejection of the ways in which alienation, fetishism, and exchange-value in their proper sociological sense displace the perception, understanding, and experience of reality among objects and people as a valid focus of literary creativity and study. Solie turns her critical eye not only outward upon the world but also inward to acknowledge her own complicity, as well as to invite the reader to look in the same mirror. The line treads dangerous territory with regard to agency and catastrophe. The question is a familiar one to the catastrophic historical rise and entrenchment of fascism with which Benjamin was contending. Who, the debate goes, was responsible for the Holocaust: the average German or the country’s political and economic leaders? By analogy, who is responsible for the catastrophes unfolding today? Solie suggests her answer with another nod to Eliot.
By way of anachronistically transplanting the Ancient Greek skeptical philosopher Pyrrho to modern times, Solie creates a persona after the fashion of Eliot in “The Three Voices of Poetry” by which she splits the poetic voice in “When Asked Why He’d Been Talking to Himself, Pyrrho Replied He Was Practicing to Be a Nice Fellow.”. Imagining Pyrrho as a manual labourer, she presents him as the speaker of the poem seeing history from the vantage point atop the ladder he uses for work:
The feet of my ladder will be planted on the earth, its hands
in the branches of the stars.
History steadies it and will not be persuaded otherwise.
From its topmost I contemplate oilsands, acts of
war, abandoned dogs sobbing in confusion
and grief, the correlative of which is all the world’s joy.
A fear follows, if experience holds,
one’s inner badger stuck in one’s inner drain.
But that’s another life disowned, more surely absent now
than what has come to pass.
In perhaps the most striking moment in the collection, a line is drawn between the related exploitation of the tar sands in Alberta and participation in war in the Middle East with “all the world’s joy” of the obscene wealth derived from these twin depredations. Pyrrho presses further to render the connection more explicit:
Let us not agree carelessly about important matters.
The death of your cockatiel and the shearing
of an Antarctic glacier the size of Manhattan are events
differing only in kind.
By suggesting that the sentimental mourning over the death of the cockatiel is on the same ethical plane as the destruction of the Antarctic ice shelf, Pyrrho takes to its logical conclusion the ethical relativism that characterizes contemporary liberal philosophy. However, in making her voice run in two directions by masking it with Pyrrho’s persona, Solie instead excoriates such ethical relativism as it has been so cynically misappropriated by the dominant proponents of neo-liberalism. As such, Pyrrho is either the dangerous figure of the liberal passive figure of Leopold Bloom who neither does nor says anything to advocate for himself or others around him in Joyce’s Ulysses as critiqued in Theory of Bloom, or he is simply cracked. By making the connection between luxury, and the environmental and social destruction that underpin it, Solie develops a dialectical correlative. The joy that such an exotic pet as a cockatiel may bring is not to be viewed in isolation; on the contrary, it is indeed materially related to natural and social destruction. As Benjamin formulated, civilization is barbarism.
In the long poem “Bitumen,” Solie records what may be the definitive poem surveying the current intellectual landscape regarding the tar sands exploitation in Alberta. Suggestive as an analogous contemporary version of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the poem undertakes a geological record of the various familiar and unfamiliar strata in the cultural terrain of Canada’s national humiliation:
Confinement, relatively broad, extremely, complex
reservoirs stacked and composite.
An area roughly the size
of England stripped of boreal forest and muskeg, unburdened
by hydraulic rope shovels of its overburden. Humiliated,|
blinded, walking in circles. Cycle of soak and dry and residue.
The poem not only bears witness to environmental destruction but also registers its effects upon the physical body, the body politic, and the body of language, all of which are intertwined strands:
A physical symptom assails
our vocabulary and things acquire a literal feeling from which
one does not recover. Mineral dissolution, complete.
The poem poignantly references Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the tar sands. Anyone who has seen his photographs cannot help but feel the conflict between awe at the beauty of his art and horror at the terrible realities he records. This ambivalence is the driving force behind Solie’s own formulation in “Fables of the Reconstruction”: “Beauty and terror / in equal measure.”
Burtynsky’s images challenge the viewer to confront the contradiction of beautiful terror without choosing a position for the viewer. Likewise, Solie enters uncanny space by describing Burtynsky’s use of drones in his aerial photography:
By elevated circumstance
of Burtynsky’s drone helicopters, revolutionary lenses
pester Alberta’s tar sands, sulphur ponds’ rhapsodic
photographs that happen in our name and in the name
of composition. Foreground entered at distance, the eye surveils
the McMurray Formation’s freestanding ruin mid-aspect
to an infinity of abstraction.
A source of deep angst, this new technology is touted as promising various forms of so-called “benevolent” and “helpful” uses but which reveal downright cynical motives upon minimal scrutiny. As she writes: “The constitution / of things is accustomed to hiding.” However, as Solie records, Burtynsky appropriates the drone’s-eye view hopefully for the beneficial purpose of rendering visible to the public the otherwise invisible production processes of this very problematic resource extraction upon which the potential survival or extinction of the human species hinges. The political impetus to unmask the hidden correspondences in society is rooted in the fundamental philosophical concerns of rendering visible the otherwise invisible traffic coursing through society. As Solie indicates in “The Living Option,” “If you can’t see it, / it’s philosophy.”
Registering the presumed actual state of emergency or end times in which we are living or at least in which our discourse is shaped, Solie describes the apocalyptic perspective that pervades contemporary consciousness:
It’s difficult to imagine everyone saved, it’s unaffordable. Waves
disproportionate, organized in depth, panic modulating
the speaking voice. The situation so harshly primary and
when you don’t go to visit the seaside, but the seaside visits you,
rudely, breaks in through the basement, ascends the stairs
to your bedroom, you can’t think of it generally then.
When pausing to consider the state of the imagination of the future in the contemporary moment, little to no space is accorded to positive outcomes. The cultural poverty afflicting the imagination of the future derives precisely from a political poverty of vision. What is needed is a new imaginary that does not simply offer a diagnosis and a prognosis but offers remedies. An imagination that can think redemptive solutions is indeed cynically considered “unaffordable” in today’s neo-liberal culture. But the redemptive imagination is all the more necessary in a moment when the waters literally crawl up one’s stairs in places like New Orleans, New York, and Calgary, all natural disasters the damage of which could have been minimized with responsible planned intervention.
Bringing the various points of reference of “Bitumen” into view by way of the overarching drive coursing through the entire collection, Solie once again renders visible the invisible sutures that bind luxury and deprivation, beauty and terror, holiday and hell:
iceberg season is spectacular this year, worth the trip
to photograph in evening ourselves before the abundance
in light that dissolves what it illuminates, water climbs
its own red walls, vermilion in the furnaces.
By indexing the pleasures of extravagant polar tourism to the costs of voluminous water usage in the tar sands inferno, Solie serves the reader with ugly truths that strike like bolts of lightning. Yes, the icebergs are lovely to see in person, but such beauty cannot be allowed to blind tourists to the harsh reality to which it corresponds, namely the water polluted for the purposes of purifying oil from the tar sands. That Solie gives such unflinching glimpses of these dynamics is to be commended; hopefully, she will encourage other much-needed critical visionary voices in contemporary poetry and culture at large.
Many readers may resist interpreting such material correspondences in Solie’s word by instead opting for mere intrinsic aesthetic appreciation rather than extrinsic social critique. The reader’s conflicted response captures precisely the kind of two-way traffic that runs throughout Solie’s collection in which beauty and terror nevertheless course through the veins of our landscape, our social structure, and our bodies. At stake is the fundamental question regarding what kind of life is worth living. Above all, answering that question requires being able to participate in the discussion: “Fear not, we are worth more than / many sparrows. / They pay for insignificance with their lives. It’s the structure.” Such an ironic use of the logic of the false bind of having to choose between birds and humans, exposes how the hierarchy of values in which profit is placed above life is concealed in the current social structure. In order for humans and sparrows alike to survive, the value of life whether human, animal, or vegetal must be raised above the value of financial profit. An entirely new structure needs to be constructed in which the sanctity, value, and safety of life are the common goals of humanity.
While the current moment predominantly imagines the future as hopelessly apocalyptic, Solie suggests in the closing poem “The Living Option” what she imagines might hold the redemptive potential for the future:
One hundred metres underground,
a divine heart races in the apparatus
and soon we will hear its voice. It will speak out
from the invisible orders not as an attribute,
a quality or quantity, but a truth perfected in all the ineffable places. A live
hypothesis. A supersymmetry.
Is it possible to love something like this?
I prayed it might happened to me.
In her closing statement of faith in the chthonic realm, something like Mother Nature herself revolting against the human emerges as the imagined redemptive force. What Solie’s redemptive imaginary suggests is that she believes in an excess that is not “unaffordable” but rather a resource of inexhaustible bounty. But just precisely what that resource might be remains ineffable, however much we struggle to label it; it certainly runs deeper than grassroots.
As a poet of Karen Solie’s kind knows, the inexhaustible resources of poetic language hold promise for such a progressive future imagination even if what roams on the road ahead remains unclear for the moment. To extrapolate from “[h]ow the silent energy coursed between us” in the past, the traffic of the conversation needs to change direction. Giving voice to the undercurrents of the silent chthonic energies surging from the depths of the earth, the imagination, and society is the present task facing not only Solie the poet, but also Canada as a nation in the global future. Solie’s hope rests in the credence that what eludes language is not impossible. If you can’t say it, it’s poetry.
Scott Marentette teaches literature, theory, culture, and writing at various universities and colleges in and around Toronto.