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Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic Review: ‘The Caiplie Caves’ by Karen Solie

Time and place are the central nodes of Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves (2019), a three-part poetic narrative traversing human life, both historical and modern, through the spatial lens of the geographic region around the titular Caiplie Caves.

Solie begins with an invocation of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: ‘The past is not for living in’. Herein lies the keystone of The Caiplie Caves, an exploration of the human relationship with land and self across disparate time periods. Land is less a setting than an entity that pulses, breathes and metamorphoses over days, years, and centuries. Disparate artefacts like road signs and ruined monestaries mark the passage of time, manifesting in a variety of human interjections upon a seemingly patient, tolerant landmass. Throughout Solie’s poems, time is an unstoppable force that cycles organic beings through a pattern of life and death; it is a metronomic constant through a human chronology of events, innovation, and cultural metamorphoses.

Grounded in a mixture of history and legend, two narrative voices emerge: the observational first-person of the modern narrator as she explores an ancient landscape, and the spectre of a seventh-century hermit called Ethernan. As is often the case with obscure medieval saints, martyrs, and anchorites, modern knowledge of Ethernan is a composite of ‘a legend and a life’, each an interchangeable part of the other. Historically, Ethernan inhabits the land and the centuries, assuming the characteristics of holy men with similar names who hail from a similar time and place. Introspective and embedded with crisis, Ethernan the narrator speaks for himself, his phantomic interludes exploring the central question of Solie’s book: why would one choose solitude in this desolate corner of the unforgiving north?

In ‘Evidence of his own cult in pictland’, Ethernan casts a bitterly critical eye upon the Church:

But the veneration of relics became a trade in relics eventually suggesting

our dear saints possessed, in addition to divine attributes

more than the usual number of working parts

to whom belonged all the blood-soaked cloth?

the surfeit of St. Pancras?

corpses piled up until the whole world was a tomb

death lost its autonomy, strange to say, it sickened

the boundary between place and no-place

no longer firm

it reduced our ability to think metaphorically

we believed the things we said because we said them

and as my colleagues grew incapable

of speaking off-brand, in the middle voice

the temper of my own voice drained away

From such passages, the reader learns that Ethernan resents the encroachment of materiality upon the spiritual. From his perspective, the violence of martyrdom leads to profiteering off the faith of the flock—a rather perverse correlation, clearly at odds with his own ethos. The sentiment is woven throughout the collection; even the opening poem is a bleak portrait of isolation and dejection:

in this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape

thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice

no leeks sprang where I walked

no stags bore beams for my house

neither am I that type of acute person who leads others into battle

or inspires love

all creatures are in exile, says Augustine, but my defeats feel more literal

It is worth remarking that in this opening poem, the narrator would seem to be the voice of Ethernan, reflecting on a world that impels him to seek the solitude of an inhospitable clime. However, as one reads further in the collection and the narrating voices increasingly overlap, it is entirely possible that the opening invocation could belong to the modern narrator as well. It is plausible that the ‘legend and the life’ is simultaneously an inhabitant of the twenty-first century, as well as an ancient hermit. Solie’s skill as both a poet and storyteller comes to the fore in these moments. Her keen sensitivity to the relationship between land and how it influences selfhood enables a transcendence of temporal barriers to create narratives that, while separated by centuries, manage to align and overlap.

Central to the relationship between land and self in The Caiplie Caves is the grimness of Ethernan’s hermetic life, one marked by the austerity of the ‘north’. It is the reflection of one who has known the world, and now seeks to reject it, a begrudging turn to the ‘grassed roof, dirt for a bed’ described in Ethernan’s introduction to his self-imposed exile. The setting is further elaborated in Part I; ‘The North’ is an invocation, not just of place, but of a mode of existence. There is a distinct echo of what Northrop Frye would call a garrison mentality, that defiant positioning of the individual self within the vastness of an unforgiving landscape. In keeping with her nationality, Solie presents a distinctly Canadian perspective in this regard, transferring it to a universalized concept of the north:

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? […]

[…] The leisure class

commends the virtues of hard work

above all else, and we labour under

frost-cramped statues, the black

letters of legislation, in hog-reek

and land-driven slag, middle-aged

from birth and, given our devotion

to slandering this place, illogically


This is the garrison of northern-ness: a place of long days and long winters, where the harshness of land is simultaneously a source of hardship and of pride, and where tenuous survivability becomes a nexus of bitter resentment and begrudging respect. ‘We could as soon move / south as rise above it’, the narrator states. The resentment against the land only further embeds a body in the antagonistic earth beneath one’s very feet, no matter how unforgiving the permafrost. But how and why does one inhabit such a place, the narrator asks?

Are sympathies

inseparable from what one does to stay alive? What is a self

But that which fights the cold?

It would seem that the struggle against the elements becomes an engrained part of one’s identity. This identity is a perpetual point of exploration as Solie switches between the contemporary accounts of travels in the region of and near the Caiplie Caves, and the fragmented ruminations of the ghostly Ethernan. As the poems unfold, the narrators overlap more and more, and solitude becomes the prevailing theme. In ‘The Desert Fathers’, the narrator observes that ‘A cell/can teach you everything. All it asks is/you give it your mind’. This line of thought continues in ‘“When Solitude was a Problem, I Had No Solitude”’, opening with ‘Experience teaches, but its lessons/may be useless. I could have done without a few/whose only byproduct is grief’.

Between the contemporary narrator and the ancient voice of Ethelred, the narrators’ potential choice is the same: the inhospitable land over an inhospitable anthropocentrism. Poems like ‘Origin Story’ and ‘Kentigern and the Robin’ portray unflinching accounts of brutality, all attributed to a human propensity for cruelty. A chilling moment in ‘She is buried on the West Braes’ portrays the contagious potential of malice in a collective group:

You know the ingenuity of cruelty’s life cycle

as well as I do.


We weren’t poisoned,

we were the infected crop passing alkaloids

among ourselves, salivating

the honeydew inoculum and spitting

when we talked, incubating the deformity

that falls to the soil, becomes the soil, the pathogen

our conditions were right for.

As if to ward off the horror of such potential violent propensities, ‘A visitation’ sees Ethelred directly upbraiding and casting off an apparition:

Paul, why are you here?

I would sooner send my spirit out walking between the hailstones

than have you drive it to its corner on the fork of your advice

Even in dreams and visions, the encroachment of the outside world is an unwelcome disturbance to the hermit’s exile. In both cases, to cast off the world is to cast off its potential for cruelty. This is further underscored by the cacophony of the modern world, evinced throughout Part III with poems like ‘The Sharing Economy’ and ‘Time Away with the Error’:

A pilot light flickers like an awareness of self.

Chaos whispers through the fittings, patterns in the textiles

repeat, pipes sing, the weeping tile: between sound and silence

is music.

The claustrophobia of modernity rises to a fever pitch of noisy, crowded stanzas, before a breathless return to the outdoors in ‘Two Chapters on Ancient Stones’. The stanzas open again; the pages breathe with a relieved lyricism, and the return of Ethernan’s ghostly narration. Yet a new side of Ethernan is revealed; with his bitterness exhausted, the inevitable by-product of prolonged isolation materializes: loneliness. His final verses are wistful, tinged somewhat with regret, as he addresses the apparition he once sought to cast out in poems like ‘Its paved road, which has all the appearance…’:

one’s self is not a well from which to draw endlessly

if you leave the tap open while brushing your teeth

so says the wisdom of the Proverbs

one day you will want that water back

when you find the place you’re in

no longer supports life

With verses increasingly spaced across the page, words gradually fade into halting whispers until the ancient hermit is silent. The final words rest with modernity, drawing the collection to a close with a sombre return to the natural world in ‘Clarity’, as the narrator reflects upon a dead gannet:

Much of what I feared then

has happened,

though not always

as I’d feared.

And so much more to fear

than I’d imagined.

On an afternoon beneath

the Quiraing, we watched

the gannets dive,

looked from the cliff edge

straight through the clear water

to the origins of variety

Although conflicted at times, oscillating between misanthropy and lonely wistfulness, The Caiplie Caves makes a case for choosing solitude. It is a resigned choice, resentful at times, and sometimes simmering with bitterness and anger. But it is also underlaid with sadness, stemming not from the difficulty of northern isolation, but originating instead from a collective society in a state so dire that a person would feel compelled to choose a hermetic life. In this way, the modern and the medieval collide and transcend the temporal gaps between the two narrative strands. In spite of its harshness, the remote north becomes a refuge for the brooding introspection of one wearied by the world. In becoming a part of the land where they escape, each narrator finds a new self, removed from anthropocentric society in a fraught alliance with the natural world. With this retreat into the land and self, there is a wryly optimistic takeaway that might otherwise be overlooked—that somehow, the hardships of a faceless natural world are easier to endure than those imposed by other human beings.

Buy The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie from the Poetry Book Society.

If you’d like to review for us or submit your publication for review, please contact Will Barrett on [email protected]

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