Thursday, 17 October 2013

Karen Solie's 'Migration': "Snow Is Falling..."


Snow at Lake Oesa, J E H MacDonald, c .1930

Canadian literature has been much in the news these last several days, because Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I actually let out a tiny shriek of joy when I saw the news, which is probably a Nobel first for me. She's been a favourite writer of mine for quite a few years, probably my favourite short story writer of all time, and a lot of us thought she deserved it but would probably never actually get it. The fact that she's a Canadian woman (both uncommon factors in a Nobel Literature win) is a bonus. She has spent some of her life in my hometown of Victoria, BC, and in Comox, also on Vancouver Island, and was actually in Victoria when the news was announced. Years ago I applied to work at Munro's Books, which she founded with her ex-husband Jim Munro, and I met Mr Munro himself, which is cool in a six-degrees-of-separation way. Apparently they get along quite well these days, and obviously Munro's has had a lot of good days since the award was announced.

Speaking of Canadian literature, I have been enjoying the work of poet Karen Solie, who is originally from Saskatchewan and now lives in Ontario. Her deceptively conversational poetry often focuses on industrial wastelands and peculiarly Canadian details. I wish I'd seen her at Poetry Parnassus last year, but there was too much going on and I really missed a lot (though I also experienced a lot). My parents brought me a copy of her collection Pigeon when they visited me in London recently. It includes this poem, 'Migration'.

MIGRATION (Karen Solie)

I think that 'Migration' is one of my favourite contemporary poems that I have read in the last few years. It shifts from wry but nostalgic details - the idling cars, the old-fashioned neighbourhoods, the "tax collector" - to elegy and a kind of agnosticism about life, with great elegance. What I really love about it, though, is the expansiveness and the sense of distance and space. Sometimes I really can't figure out if I'm Canadian or not; a Vancouver Islander is surely a bit different. I occasionally doubt whether I have ever really lived in Canada, because I never lived in places where the temperature goes to 20 or 30 below every winter. In Victoria, much as in London, residents freak out when there is an inch of snow. (They brag unreasonably about the climate, though, which a Londoner would never do.)

But one indication of my Canadian-ness - I think - is the fact that I understand how big the country is. It is really, really big, and Europeans just don't get this, unless they are among those who have not only been to North America but also travelled some distance around it. (In a similar way, a lot of North Americans don't get how close most things are in Europe, and how you can be in Paris in a few hours.) The opening lines of 'Migration' seem like a vast weather map; snow falling all over the country, the lightning over Lake Ontario, a giddy zoom in to "debt accumulating along baseboards/like hair", the "frozen fields and wheels/of wind" on the Prairies, the northern frost. The Arctic tern, too, flying bravely on to Antarctica, brings us back to the vast distances, even while the speaker stays earthbound in bewilderment. It's a fantastic poem.

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