Prac Crit


by Karen Solie

Begin, again, on a way travelled before. A train leaves Toronto, travels south towards the US border. The windows let the outdoors into the eye, reel after reel, from ‘fine and dwindling farmland’ to tart graffiti ‘on overpass and soundfence’. Objects stand out from the landscape, find their way into a poem; ‘hills of scrap aluminum’ conjure ‘cars’, ‘coloured polymers’, ‘peevish piles of refuse’ which signal the death of a world industrial. The train maintains its pace, the verse its four-line stanzas, as the stations roll past one after the other. ‘No one gets on or off / at Ingersoll. Aldershot, Woodstock, Glencoe, Chatham / came of age in the corridor.’ These towns’ rise, recent fall, and appearance now, alive and fused in the vision of one traveller; she sees the land pass as she rides down this line, ‘The Corridor’, from Quebec to Windsor. The mood of Solie’s poem can be found boxed up in its title – ‘Via’ – one word that plays a real-time film of a travelogue becoming urgently poetic. It starts as a grammatical wireframe, a preposition linking grander syntactic worlds (‘Windsor via London’); expands to the way, the route itself, the miles of wood and iron that carry this service (the Latin via: road, way, even manner or mode); then reifies itself in society and time, flourishing in historical colour: Via Rail, the Canadian inter-city train company, haunted by crisis, from its own vast funding scandals – hints of this in ‘criminal opportunism’ – to the little heartskips of any individual life borne within its cars. Emotions can’t be measured in scale; flitting in double-aspect through ‘I never meant to hurt anyone’ is a call from one unhappy privacy, and an apology from many a public figure.

Each detail of ‘Via’ is suffused by this blurring of temporalities; it’s devoted to both the present day and the scraps of the dead found in the smallest of sights. Solie insistently, quietly, tenderly brings history and affect into touch. Her surroundings are stamped with the longings of the past, and the kinds of future they failed to enjoy:

                                                As you coast

into the original neighbourhoods, ruins imply not
failure, but a lesson in patience. Memorial
to all that will neither be remade nor fall apart
completely. In trackside yards roam brightly

coloured polymers of contemporary
playtime, rainsoaked furnitures of early marriage
left with the question of material integrity.

Later, calmly: ‘It’s no use to look within.’ Though the new ‘architectures’ are ‘illiterate’, they hold the same ‘pools of remaindered night’ as any older warehouse; the world turns again, and capital runs on without a mind, like irresponsible attention. Our consolations lie in making ourselves look closer, harder. Solie’s poem ends in the future tense – the ‘secret self’ of what’s to come will catch you living somewhere / nearly by accident, but fluently, to all appearances / the station you were born to’ though its mood gestures more at the future perfect, somewhere between a tense and an emotional state: the point from which present things can retrospectively be seen, and judged, but a point whose prospect remains eternally present, and only ever limitedly imaginable. Maybe these ruins are the seeds of hope, or maybe of despair. Samuel Beckett, leaving the devastation of Saint-Lô in 1946, hoped the Irish medical staff would return home with ‘perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again. These will have been in France.’ That was an account, a text whose audience, in Stanley Cavell’s terms, ‘consists of isolated auditors’, but Solie’s work is an account made public, brought out of isolation, a poem wracked by the need to feel multiple, which makes great demands upon our own voices, our negotiations of her testimony. Each ‘auditor’ may be culturally conditioned, but they’re individually responsible; ‘Via’ asks us each to treat what we observe as the first stage of collective attention. The towns that roll past are full of junked memories, witnessing not only the industries lost in the shine of Canada’s ‘big-box developments’, but the invisible debris of innumerable other lives, every commuter or tourist or lover or saddened departing lonely rider on the Toronto-to-Windsor service, heading towards their unspoken needs. Everyone has to travel, to negotiate shared space, to send themselves out for someone or something, newly or again. You can’t deal with transit as though it were a problem; not all the time.

Often, in Solie’s verse, full-stops act as a kind of vocal damper for the sentiments breathing around them. They play down the liveliness of the sights and sounds that her verse chronicles, as it travels the liminal places of her life. Tone is one of the hardest aspects of poetry to assume with conviction: my whisper could be your hiss, and aside from what a poem might have tried to convey, worlds of hidden tendency and prejudice – maybe worlds we didn’t want to know – can suddenly appear, moving behind the ascriptions that each reader makes. Here, in ‘Via’, every sentence ends with a full-stop; no exclamations, no questions; the guide that other punctuation-marks would give, by making space expressive through variance, is lost. You could, like a traveller moving along the tracks, be ‘Bereft, content, bored witless, anticipatory, according / to your natures’ – and according to what you care to find, and show you’ve found, in the lines, so carefully detuned, laid here before you. They turn on engagement and contingency, on what you’ll consent to give back. This poem, then, especially in the moments where personhood inhabits its bleached sound, must rise up with political voice, or become aware of itself as spooked by politics; there’s no way of understanding ‘You’ve found out / who your friends are’, or ‘it makes no sense to say we’ve always / played this wrong’, or ‘For a bit of certainty, you would do anything’, with simultaneously empathetic and dispassionate thoughts. Try to give these words a colourless reading, and then notice who, or what, is being deprived of the passion that the weight of Solie’s scrapped landscape demands. Or breathe them stagily, with a touch of melodrama, casting the full-stops as campy, over-restrained, meaningful hushes, and see how the sobriety and sadness of the journey can swiftly be lost. All poetic lines enable multiple voicings, though a reader might only articulate one at a time; this is the constitutive difference between a text and a given performance; but some lines, like the studied lines of ‘Via’, demand them, desire urgent fresher company, and know that one perspective is never enough to bring that multiplicity fully into life, even as we continue to try.

Over and over, the swings of lives in time are hauled into view, made endlessly historic by being impossibly condensed. The lines try to confine these sweeps, to boil decades down to syllables: ‘Playing fields, the Park & Ride, nursing homes / like ghost ships.’ That overflow is studied, attentive, a failure with guile. All these dwellings are stations along the life-line, but all are transitory, none of them the mortgaged homes we’re taught to covet; and three are visible, yet one is spectral. In print, the ‘ghost ship’ turns up on the next page; over the leaf, past some bourne that’s too hard to measure. The lines reproduced parallel to this essay are monodirectional; you read downward, in a smooth motion, false to the printed book’s rhythms, just as a corporate schema tidies up the vagaries of the real track. Landscapes are forever skewing the futurist vectors of rail travel; no journey runs as quick or straight as the ideal plan. So, too, Solie’s book, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, denies you the linear comfort of the layout opposite, and forces your attention to sway and hold, suspended over the extratextual clip of a page-turn. Each page breaks a phrase into two units of sense which seem distant to each other over time, dimly related but in danger of being thought away as they’re lost to sight, under the leaves thumbed by.

First page: They must be lived with – [turn] – or left.

Second page: the cathode ray’s flickering blue, maturing perfume – [turn] – of boiled potatoes and 1970s optimism.

Third page: nursing homes – [turn] – like ghost ships.

All line-breaks depend on the motion of an eye and a mind; but when you turn a page, or flatten the facing one out, your body has to manipulate these sheets of paper and ink, to lift your gaze from the text and recover it from the object’s vagaries. Thin leaves, moved to link self-distanced lines, tell a collective story of the inevitable slender distinction between enduring an existence and committing it to fiction’s rhythms. You aren’t supposed to play it all backwards, to move from ghostliness to old age; you aren’t supposed to read this poem in reverse, to turn the pages left to right; but ghosts emerge from a weird zone of temporal loss, never quite past and never quite unfashioned. The landscape continues to be haunted by its future death. Derrida spotted the proximity of ontologie to hantologie, the thinking of being to the thinking of what can’t quite be: ‘At bottom, the spectre is the future, it is always to come, it presents itself only as that which could come, or come back.’ Trapped inside an endless loop, residual ghosts haunt their ground over and over, revenants compelled to re-tread the same ways, beyond our times of life. A train passes ‘Aldershot, Woodstock, Glencoe, Chatham’, the ‘new grids’ and ‘old service roads’ superimposed. A passenger stares out of the window; her eye looks again at the landscape, and sees the shadow of its sorrow, and hers. Among its ruins are the ghosts of industry and community, but there’s something inescapably personal, too, about these decaying fragments; as Wayne Koestenbaum writes, ‘loved objects can never appear for the first time, they can only reappear, dragging with them a prehistory’. The poem carries its reader out of the past while holding spectres steadily in view. ‘Via’ ends with you living ‘somewhere / … fluently, to all appearances, / the station you were born to’. Born to reach, or to leave? The journey ends, finally held in the suspension of indecision, between two immovable points; we’re not given over to a determined future, to Windsor – not here, by this poem, not yet.


by Karen Solie

Only through the train window is the idle backhoe
figurative, do electrical transformers astride
the fine and dwindling farmland pause
spellbound in their march toward the lakeshore.

At Oakville’s irritable limits, hills of scrap aluminum glitter
like a picnic ground in heaven. No one gets on or off
at Ingersoll. Aldershot, Woodstock, Glencoe, Chatham
came of age in the corridor. It remembers where cars

and appliances came from when they came
from there, witnesses the fate of plastics
and obsolete electronics purchased
at big-box developments pinning the new grids down.

Whose architectures are illiterate, but whose lots
are full. Some good jobs have returned,
though diminished, untrustworthy in their refusal to commit,
and withholding benefits. They must be lived with

or left. Descendants of these unions construct
rumours, tributes, territorial admonishments
in fatcap and wildstyle on overpass and soundfence,
life-sized, largely unreadable at speed, though a sense

of form lingers. Of colour. Old service roads
partnered with criminal opportunism end
in abandoned lots, tears, and assurances
to the contrary. I never meant to hurt anyone.

No parties in formal wear await us at the stations,
no family vacations. Here are creosote and allergies,
energy drinks, your fellow passengers:
young mothers, elderly couples, gamers talking shop,

business travellers stuck in the minors, students
clothed in battlefields of competing logos, totally in love
from the neck down. You are a type, too.
Bereft, content, bored witless, anticipatory, according

to your natures, to the capabilities of your remote
devices, deflecting ministrations of a seatmate
with a theory. Or asleep in the mind’s room decorated
in the cathode ray’s flickering blue, maturing perfume

of boiled potatoes and 1970s optimism. By now
you’re far from home. You’ve found out
who your friends are. A passing freight
throws a bag over your head, pushes your thoughts over,

roars and clatters at a forearm’s distance like the exposed
mechanics of a parallel universe and for a moment
you belong to the ages, without affiliation.
Until the snack trolley arrives to restore you to yourself,
to managers and clerks smoking in solidarity
on loading docks of light industrial areas, to mid-morning
in October, pools of remaindered night on leesides
seeding winter in the vacancies. As you coast

into the original neighbourhoods, ruins imply not
failure, but a lesson in patience. Memorial
to all that will neither be remade nor fall apart
completely. In trackside yards roam brightly

coloured polymers of contemporary
playtime, rainsoaked furnitures of early marriage
left with the question of material integrity.
Playing fields, the Park & Ride, nursing homes

like ghost ships. Wholesale Monuments. Everywhere,
motives on display, arguments with the ideal,
though it makes no sense to say we’ve always
played this wrong. One doubt hides another.

A record of our conduct. Standing water. Off-world
junkspace with mysterious distributive protocols,
peevish piles of refuse under a ‘No Dumping’ sign.
For a bit of certainty, you would do anything.

It’s no use to look within. These towns,
like your own, lived in or yet to be, are forever inadequate
to the secret self who forges ahead, calls
from beyond any given incorporation, from the fog

into which the railbed steals, with your own,
better voice. It will catch you living somewhere
nearly by accident, but fluently, to all appearances
the station you were born to.

From The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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