In the wildlands of the North – in Canada, on the Scottish seaboard near Fife, on the cold, metaphysical plains of the isolated soul – the poems from Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves live, move, and have their being.
And this being is complex, a multipartite body composed of ages medieval and post-modern, secular and spiritual, populated by characters who find themselves stranded on outcroppings threatening to disintegrate at the distemper of a gale force wind. Solie’s poems of the North invite the reader to contemplate the inherent instability of all times, to consider Viking raids, power stations, glass factories, fatal naval maneuvers, royal banishment and filicide, and the arrival of two rifle-toting strangers on one’s doorstep as the dangerous flotsam and jetsam swirling on our own private shores.
Amidst this mayhem rests the seventh-century monk Ethernan, who serves as this collection’s narrative ghost, who must decide whether to live communally as a working monk or live a hermitic life of solitude devoted to God. In this regard, his distant cris de coeur ring plaintive melodies that weave their way through the book’s more contemporary, melancholy harmonies of existential confusion.
On the shortlist for the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize, the Caiplie Caves speaks its various, complex languages so elegantly, cleaves to its often harrowing subjects with such commitment and accomplishment, that it inspires multiple re-readings, thus making it a truly superlative collection of poetry. Recently, I had the pleasure and privilege to Zoom with Karen Solie, one of Canada’s most highly regarded poets.
The first titled poem in your collection is “The North,” in which you write, “Where should we find consolation, dwelling in the north?” What does the North as a concept mean to you?
It’s interesting to think of the North as a concept. When you’re in it, it’s very concrete. I suppose growing up in Saskatchewan, particularly on the prairies, winter becomes a part of one’s identity. When I was a kid, I clearly remember thinking that -20 was nice. In -20 we can go and play, we can go skiing, and now I think, God, -20! Then, as one gets older and meets people who aren’t necessarily familiar with that kind of climate, you realize that… I don’t know if it’s that it’s exceptional but that it becomes a part of your inner map as much as the landscape, as much as your experiences. At times, you curse it. “Why does anybody live here? This is ridiculous!” It’s a kind of love, that old cliché of the love-hate relationship. The North pushes at you, you push back, and, as much as you resent having to, you feel pride at being able to.
How do you react to pianist Glenn Gould in his 1967 CBC radio documentary, “The Idea of North,” when he says the Canadian Far North is a place to dream about as well as a place to avoid?
One of the things the Far North does is provide a framework for a mythology as a way to frame one’s imagination. We’re such narrative creatures. We need frameworks, a place to put our questions and free-floating concepts. If a place is like the Canadian Far North, which is a place that a lot of people have ideas about but very few people have been to, it’s an open field. I wrote an article for a journal called Poetry London about climate crisis, and in it I quoted novelist Edward McCourt who said that the problem with Canada is that there’s too much of it. Too much water, too many rocks, too many trees, too much space. I don’t know what Glenn Gould meant by that observation, but I do think the Canadian landscape was something that was spoken and written about at points in our history as a place that was open and wild and uninhabited when, actually, there were people there with lives and cultures. It’s a habit of white settler culture to go into a new place and think, “Oh, you know, it’s empty here. I can just proceed to overlay all of my stuff on top of it.”
These poems possess such a depth of feeling for the coast of Fife in Scotland. What drew you there?
I’ve always been drawn to the North, so in part it’s familiarity. In 2011, I was in Scotland as writer-in-residence at the University of St. Andrews, and while I was there, I would take long walks along the coastal path that stretches from nearly Edinburgh to the Tay Bridge in Dundee. I would walk that stretch of path between St. Andrews and one of the fishing villages, Elie. I was living in Anstruther. Between Anstruther and Crail are the Caiplie Caves, right by the shore.
I would walk by these weathered sandstone cliff caves and just wanted to find out more, so I started to do research. All of this stuff came up, these striking geological events on the shore, in these caves. I found out about their history and their association with this hermit, Ethernan. I discovered all these stories about the other saints and hermits who were associated with the area – this is all in the preface to Caiplie – and it was intriguing that I could find out so little about St. Ethernan. He was so enigmatic. He spoke to me of a kind of solitude that still feels active. Not knowing much about that figure allowed me to get closer to the voice that appears in the book.
I’ve never had this happen before, but while I was walking along that path, the book just kind of appeared to me, not necessarily the way it exists now but the concept of it. I’d never written a book-length thing before, and so it was profoundly weird that it all just came to me, almost as if Ethernan in his gentle way was guiding the process. It almost felt like he was still wandering around.
That’s a wonderful way of thinking about the experience of reading Caiplie. Multiple layers of history appear, strongly intertwined, so that you get this illusion of being guided through timelessness.
Well, I spent a lot of time in Fife, staying in Crail. I would go back for five or six weeks at a time, at different times of year, and stay by myself in Crail in a little rented flat, and things did get somewhat strange! I went for long periods of time without speaking to anyone, except grocery store clerks and bus drivers. It was odd. I felt, not necessarily ‘presences,’ but sometimes the place held a strange dimensional aspect. Walking around there, seeing Bass Rock where they imprisoned the Covenanters, where Paul the Hermit was. Things seemed to be happening in different eras, happening at the same time.
In “A Plenitude” you write, “My regrets have become the great passion of my life” and later “But look for lies and you will see them everywhere.” There are many untruths dealt with in the book and, often, they cause pain, reminding characters of their dwindling humanity. But, what about regret? Was that a fuel for you during composition?
Yes, very much so. One of the engines of the book was the concept of error. One regrets the errors one has made and, really, one of the crucial things about what my Ethernan might have experienced – why he was in the caves in the first place – is indecision, which I feel is the book’s hinge. He was in the cave trying to decide whether to establish a priory and work for the community, help the poor and sick, teach his fellow monks as a religious active, or whether to remain in the caves as a hermit, be a solitary, continue a life of contemplation. How can one make a decision of that magnitude faced with one’s past errors, one’s regret for those errors, and the potentiality of one’s future errors?
And yet, conditions change, and good and evil coexist, says one poem’s speaker. “Experience teaches, but its lessons / may be useless” says another. Do you intend a moral element?
I’m always striving to not propose a morality in the work. I don’t think I have the insight for that. Ethernan’s decision is in part about whether or not that kind of radical privacy is an ethical way to live. Is one responsible to one’s fellow human beings to the extent that an ethical choice can be about being inactive, even given one’s inclination towards the contemplative?
The notion of being under duress in an extreme place was also something I envisioned for this Ethernan figure, experiencing physical, emotional, and mental discomfort. What kind of thinking results from that kind of extremity? I don’t think there is any essential truth or insight to be had from suffering. But, the working through it, the trying to move through it, to get some place, some transition, that’s what I’m interested in.
Along with the suffering and the tension of opposites, the difficulty of arriving at surety, there’s the issue of solitude. You mentioned earlier your own solitude. Ethernan counsels us “one’s self is not a well from which to draw endlessly.” Today, poets are connected more than ever via social media, yet the art remains an essentially solitary occupation. How much do you relate to Ethernan?
You know, I imagined him as someone who’d withdrawn from public life and into this solitude, yet still misses people. He both wants and doesn’t want people to drop by and bring him food. When they do, he rushes out and looks after them and sees only their backs as they walk away. He conjures up St. Paul, has him come to visit.
I don’t have any social media accounts, but the thing is that I’m old, so the tool of it is not the same kind of tool for me as it is for someone who grew up with the internet. God, I remember writing my university papers out longhand and then typing them out on a typewriter! That makes a difference as to how one sees this whole situation. That we can be this connected is fabulous. But, by nature I tend toward the solitary side. I certainly have some very good friends that I’ve had for many years, and they are very important to me. But, I’m not a very public person. I don’t feel that I would be good on social media. I’m very boring.
I feel like in my teaching is where I can I talk to my students and really communicate, relate, about things going on in the world. We talk about their writing, but also about their lives, what they’re interested in. Politics, aesthetics, epic poetry. That’s an important part of my life. I don’t think I’m much different than any other writer. I’m basically a private person.
The book was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and deservedly so! What was that experience like?
It was so great! It was a complete surprise. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I suppose I knew it was possible because the book was published in the UK, but it wasn’t something I ever thought about. When I found out, I was working in my office and the notice just popped up in my email. I remember I first loudly expressed a profanity-laced articulation of surprise to my colleagues. Then, it was a matter of just having fun. God, I met people who I have been reading for years, people I’ve idolized, people whose work I was bringing into class for my students. I’ll think of that time fondly for a long, long time.
The Caiplie Caves
By Karen Solie
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published July 7, 2020
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he has just completed a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.