Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Great Canadian Identity Crisis: Karen Solie's 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'

The South Saskatchewan River at Empress, Alberta. Photo by Emdx

My impending visit home to Canada seems to have brought on one of my bouts of Canadian identity crisis and questioning why exactly I left at all. Canadian identity crises (or simply, THE GREAT CANADIAN IDENTITY CRISIS) are quite complicated. If you are Canadian you will know what I mean, and if you aren't, you won't. But you could try looking up "western alienation" and "the two solitudes", for starters. Those are just two aspects of The Great Canadian Identity Crisis, but they will give you some clues.

Karen Solie is becoming a key Canadian poet at high speed, it seems. Her new Selected Poems, The Living Option, which has been published by Bloodaxe Books specifically for the UK/international market, has been extremely well reviewed. Writing in the London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann said: "Introducing Karen Solie, I would adapt what Joseph Brodsky said some thirty years ago of the great Les Murray: 'It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.' Solie is Canadian [...] and, yes, she is the one by whom the language lives." Not bad at all. I seriously regret not seeing her at Poetry Parnassus, but maybe I'll catch her somewhere else someday.

Solie was recently interviewed for The Poetry Trust's Poetry Paper, along with other poets, about how landscapes and places affect their writing. She is from Saskatchewan and now lives in Ontario. "I've grown to love Toronto," she said. "It's a vibrant, crazy and often very warm city." However, she also lived for a time in my hometown of Victoria, BC, and said: "I had been living in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, writing my English PhD dissertation, when my resources ran out. Despite its beguiling and temperate Pacific character, Victoria requires an iron will from its residents and I did not have it." I have heard all sorts of things said about Victoria, both positive and negative (and I have said some of them myself), but this was a new one on me. I am still so intrigued by it that I sincerely I hope I can ask Solie what she meant, some day.

I have particularly enjoyed this poem of Solie's, 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'.


As a description of changing identity over a lifetime, this poem could hardly be better. Mysteriously, I also feel as though it is about Canada. (Is that "In time you've learned that to behave badly isn't/necessarily to behave out of character"?) This is the self as place and journey, which feels very appropriate for Canadians. I read it and I think about trying to avoid regrets, which is valuable in itself. And the final lines are beautiful:

A mist not unlike it walks the morning streets, comments on
the distinction of Ottawa from Hull, Buda
from Pest, what used to be Estuary from what used to be
Empress and the ferry that once ran between them.

Ottawa is separated from Hull only by a conjunction of rivers, but Ottawa is the country's capital city, in Ontario, and Hull is part of the French-speaking province of Quebec. As for Estuary, it is a ghost town in Saskatchewan close to the tiny village of Empress, Alberta, and the two are also separated by rivers. Understanding the geographical nature of identity: this is really Canadian.


  1. That the residents of a particular city can have a pronounced character all their own is something which has long intrigued me. And I have often suspected that key features of that character are mostly, or even entirely imperceptible to the residents themselves--they can only be properly apprehended by outsiders. This may be one reason why you are mystified by Solie's statement--but I too am intrigued by it, and wonder what exactly she meant! Another side to this mystery is how cities one has never visited before, or even thought much about, can seem instantly like home to a person arriving there for the first time. This was my happy experience with Toronto, though I have been unable to puzzle out why it should be so. I also don't know whether it was the metropolis as a physical reality, the people I found there, or the circumstances under which my stay took place which conduced to the powerful feelings I had--and have--about the place.

    1. I agree with everything you've said here! Each and every one of us has a blind spot or twenty, and they can certainly be associated with the place you've grown up in - you can just be too deep in it to see. I did ask my mum what she thought about Solie's comment, given that she was an emigrant to Canada (although she's now lived there the majority of her life) and I thought she might "get it" a bit more - but she was a bit puzzled by the comment too. She thought that perhaps it had more to do with Solie's perspective/what she was going through at the time, than Victoria itself; and this may be right. I mean, if Solie had for instance said "Victoria people are cold", I may not necessarily have agreed, but I would sort of get where she was coming from. As you can suggest, it can be so hard to unpick your reaction to a city (good or bad) from your circumstances at the time, the people involved, etc; and after all, why should you...these factors form your reality of the place. I was in Toronto for a few days at the start of this trip, for the first time in many years, and though I certainly had fun with friends, family, good restaurants, etc etc, it's not a city that makes an enormous impression on me, though overall I do like it. Then there are cities I was mysteriously beguiled by, far mor than expected, like Cairo or Bucharest; and cities I feel like I should have loved, but didn't really, like Amsterdam and Vienna. First impressions can mean a lot too. I first visited Vienna when I was seven, ate something bad and got very sick. Many years later on a second visit as an adult, I had wonderful experiences like fantastic art and the Spanish Riding School, but it's still not a city I have warm feelings for. I do wonder if feeling awfully ill the first time coloured all my impressions.