Adam Sol: Unveiling Human Feeling in Karen Solie’s “Untitled”
You’re still young. Someone curled an arm around you as you slept,
and upon awaking gently touched your face. The first sound you heard
today was a bird, a note of origin, before traffic. It’s been years
since you thought the morning kind. Someone curled an arm around you
as you slept, and in the afternoon reached a hand toward you that you held,
simply. A note of origin, before traffic. Words you’d left behind rose
like birds to all they keep unto themselves. This is mine. Upon awaking
to that first sound, someone gently touched my face. This afternoon
I took his hand, simply, and reached across the words I’d left behind.
I’m still young. It’s been years since I thought the morning kind.
Karen Solie, from Modern and Normal, Brick Books, 2005
Recognized for her tonal daring and what Don McKay has called “a delicious amoral joy,” Karen Solie is building a body of work that conveys an intellectual complexity and emotional courage that often belies its sardonic tone.
One example of Solie’s deep intelligence and her awareness of the traditions she works in is tucked unobtrusively into her collection Modern and Normal. “Untitled” presents a powerful refutation of post-modern poetry’s difficulty with expressing sincere emotion, especially positive emotion. Through a confrontation with her reader and her subject matter, and a move away from some of the protective tropes of contemporary poetry, Solie manages to break through a by-now familiar modern self-doubt and to reinvigorate a romantic image that is all the more powerful for having survived such challenges.
The poem opens with many of the standard tropes of contemporary writing: an ironic, emotionally distant tone; a second-person narration; and flat language with ambiguous intent: “You’re still young.” Is the tone comforting or condescending? Is the subject’s youth meant to be a sign of ignorance or of good things to come? In deft, but familiarly post-modern fashion, the poem skirts the issue, promising comfort with “Someone curled an arm around you as you slept, / and upon awaking gently touched your face.” But who is this “someone”? The lack of specificity leaves room to interpret the encounter, as well as the accompanying comfort, as transitory. Similarly, the “note of origin” from a bird that the subject first hears upon waking is quickly followed by the sound of traffic. It is as if the speaker of the poem herself is resisting the desire to interpret the scene as romantic: the gentle touch and the sound of the bird are both quickly undercut by the traffic and the lack of the lover’s specificity. The statement that follows – “It’s been years / since you thought the morning kind” – is similarly undercut by the line break. The subsequent emphasis on “It’s been years” contributes to the rather dark admission that while this morning might be kind (or at least that you think it is), it has been years since the subject has been able to make such a seemingly banal and commonplace observation.
The next section of the poem (if a ghazal-ish poem of a mere 10 lines can be said to consist of sections) uses a tool common to both post-modern and romantic writing: repetition. The second appearance of “Someone curled an arm around you / as you slept” at first doesn’t seem to have dramatic significance, and as such calls to mind the hyper-modern poetry of John Ashbery’s, with its intellectualized wanderings into physical gestures. But, of course, repetition is also the main characteristic of the romantic refrain, and at first the sentence seems to support this more romantic turn by adding “and in the afternoon reached a hand toward you that you held, / simply.” But again, the formal maneuvers of the poem – the line break emphasizing “simply,” the insistent and distancing second person – continue to make the romance a self-doubting one. Is the simplicity of the handholding pleasant or moronic? Or is the poem suggesting that the two are one and the same? The repetition that follows – “A note of origin, before traffic” – does nothing to settle the matter. Even the highly romantic gesture – “Words you’d left behind rose // like birds” descends quickly into the doubt of “to all they keep unto themselves.” The archaic use of “unto” undercuts the romanticism here rather than supports it: the words are rising, not the birds, and what “they keep unto themselves” is their very nature, the essence of their meaning. The call to linguistic self-doubt culminates the increasing discomfort the speaker seems to have with the simple description of a romantic scene. One could imagine a lesser poem ending here, with the qualified romance of the couple set off against their essential alone-ness such that even the language of their love floats away like unidentifiable birds, resistant to meaning.
But thankfully our narrator has finally grown fed up with the artificial distance she has placed between herself and the scene. With sudden emotional daring, smack in the middle of line 7, the speaker tosses off the mask to declare flatly, “This is mine.” Reminiscent of the famous “Write it!” that elevates the emotional intensity in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” the poem suddenly turns away from the abstracted distance of the projected “you” – a conceit that has run its course – to face herself, the reader, and her subject matter, directly. “This” refers here not only to the scene – an admission of love, daring on its own – but also to the poem itself, to the speaker’s awkward efforts to convey the mixture of doubt, embarrassment, fear and joy that writing about love brings to a contemporary poet. It is the speaker’s claim – the poet’s claim – to wrest the material back from the distance of modern poetic defense mechanisms. “This” – this statement, this event, this feeling – is mine, not that of some cipher posing as myself, and, in this poem at least, I will no longer hide behind the conventions that protect me from my happiness.
The rest of the poem recasts the images and language of the preceding lines, with the only changes being some rearranging of sentence order, and the crucial change from second person to first, which of course changes everything. Now the simplicity of “gently touched my face” and “I took his hand, simply” have the power of confession and intimacy that they lacked in the preceding lines, and the matter-of-fact language, rather than suggesting suspicion and self-doubt, suggests awe.
This final movement in the poem culminates in the phrase “and [I] reached across the words I’d left behind.” “The words left behind” include the words mentioned earlier, that had risen “like birds to all they keep unto themselves.” But these words also include the early lines of the poem itself, which the speaker implicitly acknowledges had failed to “reach across” the space between her lover and herself. Now, with the confidence of her vulnerability, she has the power to reach across those very words which had, until then, prevented her from being forthright.
By its conclusion, the poem has thrown off all the self-protecting post-modern conventions in order to reveal an emotion – love, with its trepidation and embarrassing attendant clichés – that is all the more compelling for having been won in the midst of such self-doubt and cynicism. With the change to first person on the 7th line, the built-in, post-modern ironic dismissal of joy and love is dramatically stripped away. What remains is pitch-perfect iambic pentameter:
/ u / u u / u / u /
It’s been years since I thought the morning kind.
On its own, the line might strike us as trite, the opening to a student’s villanelle exercise. But after the struggle that has come before, it rings as a hard-won romantic moment that could not be achieved without the distancing, the almost sinister opening with its qualifications and distrust.
“Untitled” is a gutsy performance by a talented poet.