Sadly, my Zoom app couldn’t bear the strain of travelling back to the 7th century and the Caiplie Caves on the east coast of Fife for our first online Climate Reading Group. After repeated freezing and crashing – a terrible metaphor for the cataclysmic times we’re living in – we managed to get by with me just on audio. Despite the technological challenges, everyone appreciated the chance to discuss Canadian poet Karen Solie’s powerful collection, The Caiplie Caves (Picador 2019, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize), read several of her poems together and share thoughts about Climate Change and the current situation. People said such interesting and insightful things about human nature and our shared dilemmas: I was only sorry I couldn’t see them saying them.*
With characteristic clarity, Karen Solie, recognising that ‘language is both cure and poison’, has written about the role of poetry in relation to the climate crisis:
‘We distrust poetry because it can’t do what we want it to do, what we need it to, yet we persist. It’s our persistence as writers and as readers, in light of what poetry cannot do, that holds the key to what it can…though poetry isn’t sufficient, it may be necessary. Whereas Solnit observes that ‘Despair is often premature…a form of impatience as well as certainty’, poetry is a practice of patience and uncertainty. Its imperative is to clearly articulate encounters with the unclear, the unresolved, the indefinable. It is to write again that which is written over or ignored by powers whose interests lie elsewhere. It is to affirm presence.’
The Caiplie Caves expresses this sense of presence in its concentration on place, a ‘foggy, dispute-ridden’ stretch of north east coast, and the voice threaded all the way through of Ethernan, the hermit who lived there in the 7th century. The collection imagines him, literally between a rock and a hard place, trying to decide whether to stay living a solitary contemplative life in his cave or to set up a monastery on May Island five miles out at sea. Solie has said that the book is concerned with ‘how to act inside the memory of error and the prospect of error’, exploring those factors that would have weighed upon Ethernan’s decision – ‘war, religious colonisation, power and money, forces which talk across centuries’.
She takes a historical and philosophical approach to raising questions about where we find ourselves now, in our own place and time of crisis, trying to untangle social, environmental and spiritual predicaments that have accumulated over centuries and created their own consequences – the ‘error’ she frequently mentions (echoing perhaps what Ethernan would have called ‘original sin’).
In her essay, Solie says:
‘Asked to write on the broad topic of climate crisis, I run up against the implicit reality that it can’t be separated out from systems of economic inequality, racist violence, political corruption, short-sighted misanthropic greed, and all the local evils they perpetrate. The accrual of evils can be difficult to accommodate.’
In these poems, she finds a form to ask: How do we extricate ourselves from the machinery of capitalism and consumerism, injustice, war and violence, and begin to resolve the obstacles to a healthier, greener, fairer world? How do we make the leap from the personal to the collective and hold them in balance?
Divided into three sections, the collection is full of different voices and layouts, linguistically rich, intense and compact, often composed of found text from various sources. Her tone can be casual and contemporary (like ‘talking while driving…off the cuff’, according to one critic), satirical and darkly humorous, but also high-flown, taking you by surprise with absolutely spot-on imagery. Her poems are supremely unparaphrasable, yielding more meaning and associations with each reading.
Uncompromising, she looks reality and contradiction dead in the eye, challenging the reader to navigate tricky syntax and an arcane lexicon, to consider where we might locate ourselves in relation to our own ethos and the world’s and what we are going to do about it.
To make our own the righteous anger
that keeps some people alive
feels like doing something
so grief and fear don’t stir
under their blanket, don’t open their eyes.
(‘Origin Story’, p. 70)
She depicts a dualistic universe, one we interpret too literally, creating polarities out of diversity. Glimpsed through the darkness is a sense of pervasive ‘variety’ (the last resonant word in the book) – everything in the natural world, including ourselves, intertwined and inseparable. Despite the litany of ‘miscalculation’ and failure, there is still evidence of ‘this radiant simultaneous tense’, a ‘buoyant mingling of the elements’ (pp.99-100).
We were looking forward to hearing Karen Solie read from The Caiplie Caves at the launch of this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, but this was yet another casualty of the pandemic. There are various clips of her reading from the book on YouTube – worth watching to get a sense of her crisp and understated voice that carries so much power in it.
As she says, ‘After experiencing a great poem, things often look a little different. And change, however small, affirms the capacity for change. Not all poems are great. In fact, precious few are great. But all, if practised seriously, with attention, refuse to settle.’ In what ways, on and off the page, might we choose now to refuse to settle and create the change we so desperately need?
*I am delighted to add that I’ve downloaded a new version of Zoom and all seems to be on track for our next session on Tuesday 16 June, 6pm – reading Thich Nat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth. You can book your place here.