THE CAIPLIE CAVES
By Karen Solie
“We love the things we love for what they are,” Robert Frost declares at the end of “Hyla Brook.” But as Frost knew, that’s only half the truth. We also love the things we love because of how they make us feel about ourselves, which is itself often a function of how we think they make us appear to others. Or so roughly 97 percent of social media postings, particularly those involving boats, would suggest.
This fact has a special relevance for poets, because while our culture generally has little interest in poems as such, there is still cachet in being seen as a Person Who Reads Poetry. A writer who aspires to recognition beyond the thorny borders of the poetry world accordingly faces two countervailing challenges: On one hand, she’ll need to produce something that “looks like poetry” to the audience she hopes for (usually readers of literary fiction); on the other hand, what looks like poetry to that audience is partly defined by its unfamiliarity. In order to satisfy, then, the work must somehow be both readily identifiable and mystifying.
This peculiar phenomenon helps explain the oddity of Karen Solie’s new book, “The Caiplie Caves.” This is Solie’s fifth collection of new work; her previous efforts have won an array of honors and awards, including Canada’s lucrative Griffin Prize (Solie is from Saskatchewan). Indeed, Solie is “now considered one of Canada’s best poets,” according to the back of her 2009 collection “Pigeon.” Her American debut, “The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out,” appeared in 2015; on its cover the critic Michael Hofmann declared, “Solie’s work should be read wherever English is read” — high praise for sure, even if that “should” seems a little poignant. So Solie has reached the point at which, as a poet, you begin to notice you’re being noticed, and to wonder if the attention means you should try something different.
“The Caiplie Caves” is certainly that. For one thing, it’s Solie’s first project book. In the poetry world, this vague-sounding description has a very specific meaning; it refers to collections in which many or all of the poems, rather than being about the usual variety of poetic stimuli (trees, exes, dead relatives), instead relate to a unitary subject, which will typically be a hefty political or historical matter rather than, for instance, laundry or houseplants. The advantage to the project book is that its contents are easy to describe (“readily identifiable”) even if the individual poems are filled with airy poeticisms (“mystifying”). If it sounds as if project books are usually tedious, that’s not the case — some are quite good. But in an era in which poets often need to produce collections in order to remain employed, it’s reasonable to look skeptically on a form that can resemble a paint-by-numbers kit.