What is Not a Thing: A review of THE ROAD IN IS NOT THE SAME ROAD OUT by Karen Solie
(Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, Toronto 2015, $19.95 , 112 pages)
Review by David Swartz
Karen Solie’s way of approaching the reality of concrete things (and names) in The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out is to compare them to people. A thing is not a person. “People don’t stand in for each other the way things do” (“Museum of the thing”). Rather, Solie speculates:
A pail is thing. So is
the water it carries. A painting
hangs like a hat on a nail.
Judgement, perception, death are things
in themselves, they’re not nothing,
though they don’t, as things, appear.
Solie reimagines the value of existential certainty in light of her analysis of thingness. Evident in her title is an adamant refusal to become entangled by an originary intent. Truth is not a direct journey, rather, an unexpected passage. Questions never get answered. While remaining unflinchingly personal, devoid of any kind of rigorous philosophical method, Solie’s poems, unsurprisingly, reveal depth of vision. The themes are loosely laidout, wide-ranging: “the road in is not the same road out” alludes to an unexpected harvest of circulatory wanderings.
As philosopher, Solie provides us with everyday common sense suggestions: “Time is short,” and “Pedestrians, obey your signals.” Then, quite suddenly, things open to larger meanings. Unexpected metaphors loom at every turn (“a doorknob / came off in my hand like a bad prosthetic”).
After leaping into a poem, Solie takes short punctuated steps, keeping the reader wanting. She’s passionate and attentive to detail, and committed to the subject of her poem, herself, her hands writing the book, our hands picking up the book to read it
Solie deliberately brings in local imagery, colour, rhetorical questions, juxtaposing on one occasion Epicurus’ notion of injustice with the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf by the Toronto Maples Leafs. She wants to know if these are things too. Certainly they are. But once again, “people don’t stand in for each other.” A person is not a thing.
In Solie’s book, multiple ideas walk hand in hand, thoughts merge with questions, visions are born out of local descriptions and impressions. Solie’s tone is, at times, whimsically philosophical, autobiographical, impressionistic. Life is a vision to the visionary. There are many things to behold. What is the sense of these things? What is behind them? What is a thing? Solie contemplates such questions in her poems bravely.
“We are all locals now,” writes Solie. “A thing is what it is called.” To identify a thing by its name makes all of us relatives in the world of words. And yet, in a world such as Solie’s, where everything is full of metonymic significance, and where “the air is thick with personal messaging,” a thing can be what it is called, so long as the “Sad storm of objects becoming things” excludes living beings. “No thing / can survive such boredom.” In her philosophical and especially terse poem “Fables of the Reconstruction,” Solie writes: “Should a single being vanish into / what is not, so all things may vanish, as is written.” We get a sense of the kinship between thingness and nothingness. In many instances, Solie alludes to the paradoxical relationship between these two seemingly opposite poles of existence. Thankfully, her poetry does not get stuck in the mud of philosophy. Like a true artist, Solie is content to juxtapose things, names and ideas, simply to see what will happen.
Solie writes in broken-down digestible sentences (“the unknown is where we played”), and pregnant fragments (“Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present”). In her poem “the Living Option,” she maintains that 80 VALLUM the questioning method of philosophy perpetuates doubt. The only reason one doubts something is because one cannot see it. “If you can’t see it, / it’s philosophy. A game between us / and the nature of things.” Nevertheless, the place and existence of things remains steeped in mystery. “One doubt hides another.” Questions never get answered.
Solie will take another path: “he sensed in her an imminent change in direction.” She begins with self-consciousness, asserting herself through selfquestioning: “Still you … We were here once, hand in hand.” By now she is working on two fronts, addressing both herself and her reader: “What we share, though, transcends / ownership …” Aware of her rhetorical prowess and not wishing to direct herself or her reader through questioning alone, Solie indirectly suggests that poetry must rise above philosophical questioning, since “Neither question nor assertion makes sense / when truth is a tone of voice.” In The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out, Solie proudly reaffirms poetry’s ability to take on the great questions of epistemology and existentialism, by turning to the ongoing relationship between human beings and the nature of things themselves.
David Swartz is a Canadian writer, editor and visual artist. He has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto and is currently studying painting at the Faculdade de Belas Artes at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Check out his website: http://www.davidswartzart.com/.
This review was published in issue 12:2 “Humour.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website here: http://www.vallummag.com/archives_12_2.html