The award-winning poet Karen Solie’s striking fifth collection of poetry blends the story of a seventh-century monk with contemporary themes of economic class, environmentalism, and solitude in an ever-connected world
if one asks for a sign
must one accept what’s given?
Ethernan, an Irish missionary in the seventh century, retreated to the Caiplie Caves on the eastern coast of Scotland to consider life as a hermit. In The Caiplie Caves, Karen Solie’s fifth collection of poems, short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize, Solie inhabits a figure inspired by Ethernan, a man torn between the communal and the contemplative. His story is remarkable for the mysticism embedded in the ordinary; as Solie writes in her preface, Ethernan is not known for supernatural feats, but “is said to have survived for a very long time on bread and water.”
Interwoven with the voice of this figure are poems whose subjects orbit the physical location of the caves and join the sharply contemporary to the mythic past: the fall of a coal-fired power station; a “druid shouting astrology” outside a liquor store, putting “the Ambien in ambience”; seabirds “frontloaded with military tech”; the dichotomous nature of the stinging nettle.
These are meditations on the crisis of time and change, on class, power, and belief. Above all, these are ambitious and exhilarating poems from one of today’s most gifted poetic voices.
Where should we find consolation,
dwelling in the north? Amid the stunted
desperate plant life clinging
to its edges, thriving on atmospheric
vengeance or neglect? Of two moods,