READS OF THE YEAR 2016: P.W. Bridgman
Karen Solie The Road in is Not the Same Road Out (House of Anansi)
Some of what we Canadians export to the rest of the world properly attracts controversy. Oil, asbestos (until recently) and the train-wreck rock ’n roll stylings of Nickelback are examples. Other Canadian exports arrive less encumbered. Among them are our peerless maple syrup, the Blackberry hand-held device (until recently), the exquisitely dark and emotive music of the late Leonard Cohen and the rich and textured poetic writings of Karen Solie.
In 2013, readers in the UK were treated to a proper taste of Karen Solie’s work when Bloodaxe released The Living Option: Selected Poems. The Road in is Not the Same Road Out is her latest offering, and the first Solie title to be published since, with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, she won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010.
Where ought one begin with Solie’s prickly, and by turns tender and sometimes transgressive, word-craft? The road in is most certainly not the same as the road out of this new volume of strong, urgent and querulous poems. We enter with an Ode that reminds us that “there’s a reason why it’s called the nervous system” and we leave with the first Canadian appearance of ‘The Living Option,’ the poem that gave the 2013 Bloodaxe selection its name. There, Solie offers a cri de coeur which historians may eventually recognise as the blazon for our times: “The market writes its autobiography/on minds and bodies, my own/and those of my siblings./Are we not innocent with respect to it?” Solie’s rhetorical question and its cautious concession of self-doubt suggests that, as we watch the gains of small-l liberalism slip slowly from our collective grasp, she considers us all as being complicit, through inertia or perhaps more, in our present predicament.
Other commentators have observed that Solie’s gifts are revealed in, among other ways, the skilful and nuanced manner in which she combines highly lyrical language with the flint and grit of the demotic. I concur. Hers is a broad canvas and the articulate but disquieting imagery conjured up by her conflation of high flown diction with the plain talk of the street always manages to both satisfy and unsettle, simultaneously.
I was delighted the other day to find a new poem by Solie in the current (Fall, 2016) issue of The Paris Review. It is entitled ‘A Hermit’ and (conveniently for present purposes) it includes a guarded tip of the hat to Caledonia.
… A helicopter beating all night above the firth,
a Druid shouting astrology
outside the off-license will eventually
put the Ambien in ambience.
Our culture is best described as heroic …
Typical of Solie, the nod is wry and discomfiting in equal measures—writing, in other words, that could have come with a wink from a slightly more buttoned-down and laced-up Irvine Welsh
Colin Barrett Young Skins (The Stinging Fly Press)
One part wunderkind, one part enfant terrible, Colin Barrett has taken the literary world by storm. His is one of the brightest new voices in Irish short fiction and when it finally lapped up on the shores of North America in 2015, Young Skins (his first book, published originally in 2013) quickly began to build a following on this side of the Atlantic. Barrett is only 36, yet the accolades for his writing have rained down like manna from the literary heavens in a way generally reserved for more seasoned and experienced authors. Those plaudits include the Guardian First Book Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, to mention only three.
Young Skins reads like a catalogue raisonné of the grief and destruction left behind after the battered and bruised Celtic Tiger, its hour come at last, slouched not “towards Bethlehem to be born” but toward Brussels to be transfused. Barrett’s rich and evocative short stories deftly capture not only the ennui and despair brought on by high unemployment and limited prospects; they also recognise and celebrate the resilience, proud defiance and good humour with which, by turns, those depredations are borne, and sometimes overcome, by at least some feisty Irish youth.
Barrett is a master at, among other things, capturing the dialogue of his generation. The patois of his characters’ conversations rises from the page like the scent of fried haddock off a crumpled page torn from the Connaught Telegraph. The character Tug, in the story ‘The Clancy Kid,’ is a simple, brooding youth with a hair-trigger temper. He is obsessed with the disappearance of a young boy from the town and his speculative fugues become increasingly bizarre and unhinged with each passing day:
‘They could be lesbians,’ Tug says. ‘German lesbians. Who, you know, can’t have a child. Can’t get the fertilisation treatment, can’t adopt. Maybe they got desperate.’
‘Maybe,’ I say.
‘The Clancy kid looked Aryan. You know? Fair-haired, blue eyed,’ Tug says.
‘All children look Aryan,’ I say, irritated.
With more space I would happily have given more examples. I will say that Colin Barrett’s short fiction constantly ‘startles and illuminates.’ One of the late doyens of Canadian literature—Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields—famously said that good, fictional writing must do exactly that. (For a fuller survey of Carol Shields’ insightful writing advice, consult Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini, eds., Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, released in 2016 by Random House Canada.)
Colin Barrett is a resolutely Irish writer who turns a sharp eye on his country’s often beset, small-town culture. He belongs to Ireland, to be sure, but his short stories belong to us all (wherever we live) because the truths he uncovers in his characters’ lives and travails are universal. That said, perhaps—just perhaps—he may belong just a little more to his readers in Canada than to his other readers from abroad. I make this claim because I was delighted to discover in the fine print that Barrett was, in fact, born in Alberta. These words, taken from Young Skins, could almost have been written about any one of a dozen towns clustered around Calgary and Edmonton:
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
George MacBeth The Colour of Blood (Macmillan)
I fear that fewer and fewer people read George MacBeth today. This is a great pity. He was one of Scotland’s most prolific writers of poetry and, in his later years, of prose. Cancer took him in his sixtieth year, yet his literary legacy is broad and many-splendoured; it ought not to be permitted to moulder out of neglect. I count several MacBeth titles in my own library, several of them in fact inscribed copies I picked up at second-hand shops. The inscribed ones came from the personal library of celebrated Canadian poet, Susan Musgrave. (What, ever, can have possessed Susan to get rid of them?)
This year I decided to re-read MacBeth’s The Colour of Blood. I will confess that the concrete poems toward the end of the slim volume left me as cold as they did the first time around. He’d have been well advised to leave that form in the skilled hands of his countryman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, or in those of Canadians like bp Nichol and bill bissett. But the rest of The Colour of Blood is a tour de force.
It is little wonder that MacBeth drew praise from, and comparisons to, the likes of Philip Larkin. They were not unalike. But no one, not even Larkin, could have written ‘The Airship Poem’ or anything like it. That poem is pure MacBeth. In places one discerns in it an echo of Larkin’s dark and acerbic wit, but ‘The Airship Poem’ lacks the deadweight with which a Larkin poem can sometimes wholly submerge the spirit. Here are the two opening stanzas to savour:
After the other words
had lined up and gone into
their complicated arks
I was left with the baggy
silk of the airship
poem, that spent elephant,
in the breeze.
I let it ride
for too long on its
title. It never floated
easily above images
that bogged it down. It was
always a slow starter.
The airship poem
never got off the ground …
Never got off the ground? Oh, come on now. This is a poem whose clever syntactical acrobatics and ironic humour lifted me skyward in my twenties when I first read it and I find that it transports me still. I think it would transport many (if only they knew where to find it).
In the 1970s, when I first encountered The Colour of Blood, ‘The Twelve Hotels’ seemed to me to be the living heart of the 77-page selection. That impression persists on re-reading the book these many years later. It is a carefully wrought prose poem, divided into 12, obscurely linked and numbered stanzas. The writing is cinematic and arresting. MacBeth’s imagery burns itself onto the retina and lingers, like a scene from Les Quatre Cent Coups or La Grande Bellezza. Consider stanza V:
He walked on the very edge of the pavement to keep his head in shadow. The black lacquer of his sun-glasses was folded over his two middle fingers. Behind him, he could hear the chock-chock of a girl’s high-heeled shoes. Pausing beneath the brick wall of the Museum on the corner, he looked back at her, disguising the movement under the appearance of consulting his Baedeker. The girl walked past, swaying evenly from her hips in a print dress. He felt the familiar prickling begin. She was French.
O, the mesmerising, scintillating detail. Not only does it not clutter or weigh MacBeth’s poetry down, it enlivens it and provides pinpoint focus that makes it seem almost three-dimensional.
George MacBeth’s The Colour of Blood rewards re-reading, often. The same can be said of his many other collections, parts of which (we can be thankful) were gathered up into a Selected Poems by the redoubtable Anthony Thwaite in 2003 and published by Enitharmon. Alas, even the Selected Poems is now out of print. Perhaps Susan Musgrave has saved a copy?
George MacBeth’s equals among the poets of his time are not easily found and it is to be hoped that his work will one day find its way back onto undergraduate reading lists, into doctoral dissertations, and onto the poetry shelves of bookshops across the world.