Living Caves

Reviewed by Katherine McLeod

Reading Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves in March 2020 during the COVID-19 global pandemic is an experience of recognizing all too well the solitude at the heart of this collection. Solie’s ability to craft poetry that is both familiar and devastating is nothing new after four award-winning collections: Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005), Pigeon (2009), and The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015). In The Caiplie Caves, Solie crafts clever lines—such as “the solitude / there are no two ways about it / you can live here but don’t expect it to entertain you”—that not only uncannily speak to our current time of self-isolation but also deliver a sharp critique of extractivism in that the earth is not here to serve humanity. Located on the coast of Fife, Scotland, the Caiplie Caves have been places for isolation and places for dwelling, as people continue to visit them freely, build a fire, or seek shelter. Moving from the seventh century to the twenty-first, Solie’s poems circle around the choice facing Irish missionary Ethernan of whether to establish a priory on May Island (facing the caves) or to retreat from the world as a hermit.

As Solie writes in the preface, “Ethernan’s story still wanders outside the archive, resists a final resting place in the ever-expanding facility of the past.” The poems look out from the mouth of a cave across the water to May Island: “[I]t’s turned its face turned toward me / it’s about to speak.” Caught in indecision, the poems are preoccupied with the possibility of error: that, in making the wrong decision, this fault would make it impossible to return. In fact, Solie reveals the precise moment when there is no turning back. Or, rather, that when you turn back you see that the past has hardened into form, which the book contrasts with a malleable present that is livable—one that has not been “crystallized by the system.” The ocean is still at work eroding its edges.

One of the most poignant of these moments appears towards the end of the book when industries of Medicine Hat converge with those of Edinburgh during a description of a factory that must run constantly “lest molten glass harder in its veins.” For this factory, “[h]esitation could mean the vital machinery / would be made worthless.” All of the poems consider worth and worthlessness through “the mind’s ear,” revealing a troubling world in which “trees turn into ships, and sail away,” and the self looks across at an island of indecision:

the May is there

idling at the curb in a cloud of exhaust

radio on its doors all dented.

While carefully deconstructing and deliberating indecision, Solie writes the earth as abundantly clear in its roaring call for action.

This review “Living Caves” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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