Scottish Texts and Contexts in Karen Solie’s ‘The Caiplie Caves’

The Caiplie Caves, published in 2019, is the fifth original collection by the Canadian poet Karen Solie. A native of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, Solie won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her 2009 collection, Pigeon, and is also the recipient of numerous other Canadian literary awards. In a London Review of Books essay on The Living Option: Selected Poems (2015), the poet and critic Michael Hofman – with characteristic hyperbole – praised Solie as ‘indeed the one by whom the language lives’, quoting Joseph Brodsky on Les Murray.1 For Hofman, both Solie and Murray are poets of a deterritorialised English, writing of ‘edgeland atmospheres and experiences and conditions you don’t find anywhere else, settled, unsettled, resettled, unsettling.’2 Solie’s poems recognise Canada as ‘a frontier, an enterprise zone that frays to the north and very rapidly gets very thin on top.’3 In one sense, the Scottish setting of The Caiplie Caves takes Solie out of the fraying zone of northern enterprise that she documents so powerfully in her earlier collections; yet her most recent poems are also preoccupied with ‘edgeland atmospheres and experiences’, and Scotland is also the north.

Reviews of The Caiplie Caves have generally been positive. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Camille Ralphs describes the individual lyric poems in the collection as ‘uniformly excellent.’4 In a brief notice for Canadian Literature, Katherine McLeod recognises Solie’s deft exploration of the theme of irresolution: ‘While carefully deconstructing and deliberating indecision, Solie writes the earth as abundantly clear in its roaring call for action.’5 For Ange Mlinko, in The New York Review of Books, Solie’s collection raises the question of ‘whether lyrical poetry, too, as a contemplative practice, is worthy of an honourable person living wisely and well in this plasticine Anthropocene.’6 She praises the sensuous detail of the collection, noting that ‘Solie’s powers of description have never been so acute, her senses so greedy.’7 Less enthusiastically, in a review for The New York Times, David Orr questions the care with which Solie writes her verse, observing ‘that while Solie’s speed can be a virtue, it can also lead to lines that look hurried and unhelpfully baroque.’8 As this paper will show, however, the ‘baroque’ or difficult aspect of Solie’s poems itself mirrors a central thematic concern of the collection as a whole – the difficulty of achieving certainty.

The Caiplie Caves of the title are located in the East Neuk of Fife on the Coastal Path that runs between Anstruther and Crail. Though Solie suggests the name means ‘Cave of Horses’, it is likely derived from the Gaelic capa, meaning a head or point of land. According to Peter Yeoman, the Coves, as they are locally known, ‘are historically associated with St Adrian by Wyntoun in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, written around 1420. This group of sea caves feature man-made modifications to walls and entrances, and there are antiquarian records of the discovery of Pictish symbols within the caves, which are now almost obliterated.’9 In addition to Pictish symbols, the cave walls are marked with ‘roughly incised crosses, which are characteristic of later medieval pilgrimage activity.’10 Solie notes in her Preface that the Caves are not just part of the past, ‘but are very much lived in […] People still build fires in the caves at Caiplie, drink, and camp there.’11 The Caves are also significant as a place associated with an early medieval missionary named Ethernan, whose imagined voice brings unity to the collection as a whole.

Solie’s account of the saint in her Preface emphasises how little is known of the historical Ethernan, noting that Scottish tradition confuses him with another religious figure associated with the region: ‘Sometimes conflated with Adrian of May, murdered with his fellow monks during a Viking raid on May Island in 875, Ethernan is also supposed to have been the ‘Itarnan’ who ‘died amongst the Picts’ in 669, as entered in the Annals of Ulster.’12 Solie’s main source for Ethernan is a 1998 article by the archaeologist Peter Yeoman, who quotes the brief entry in the Annals in its entirety: ‘Ithernan [and Corindu] died among the Picts.13 Beyond this, little is certain. That Iona showed interest in him suggests that Ethernan may have trained there before engaging in missionary work among the Picts.14 Apart from this one entry, ‘[t]he only other contemporary records, probably from the seventh or eighth centuries, are four symbol and other stone crosses with inscriptions that translate as Ethernanus.’15 The name itself is Irish or Pictish, ‘derived from a Latin loan-word meaning “eternal” or “the eternal one,” reflecting a core belief of the Christian faith.’16 Ethernan’s legacy also survives in the form of several place-names, notably that of Kilrenny, likely meaning ‘church/chapel of Ethernan’, a coastal village in Fife north of the Isle of May, a central location in Solie’s collection.17

Though frustrating for historians and archaeologists, the absence of information on Ethernan creates an open space for Solie’s poetic imagination. She notes in her Preface that even Ethernan’s surmised journey from Iona to Fife, either through the Great Glen or via Lindisfarne, cannot be proven. More fruitful for her poetic project is the suggestion in later sources that Ethernan retired to the Caiplie Caves sometime ‘in the mid-seventh century to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island.’18 Solie also notes ‘Ethernan’s poverty of supernatural accomplishments’ – the absence of any miracles or supernatural feats attributed to him. Instead, Ethernan ‘is said to have survived for a very long time on bread and water.’19 He is thus a more credible and recognisably human figure, struggling in a material environment to make sense of his place in the world through the modes of understanding available to him. Camille Ralphs questions ‘the sequence’s plot, in which nothing much seems to happen, but, given the relatively quotidian nature of Ethernan’s experience, the ennui must be intentional.’20 I would argue that not only is that ennui ‘intentional’, it is inseparable from Ethernan’s own failed spiritual quest.

Solie gives voice to Ethernan in an introductory poem and three series of poems placed in each of the sections of the collection as a whole. Each series is introduced with a poem identified by spatial co-ordinates, locating Ethernan in a specific location. Formally, each of the Ethernan poems is right-justified and double-spaced so that each free-verse line is surrounded by the white space that dominates the page. The distinctive layout separates them from the other lyrics in the collection, while the isolated lines suggest Ethernan’s own attempt at isolation in a forbidding landscape. (Ralphs suggests that the shape of the poems evokes ‘immediate airy retreats.’)21 In the first poem written in his voice, Solie presents Ethernan as a doubtful figure who describes his retreat as an ‘apprenticeship to cowardice’, wondering if his ‘fulfilment will be the fulfilment of an error.’22 He contrasts his own life with that of his spiritual forebears, noting the absence of miracles: ‘no leeks sprang where I walked / no stags bore beams for my house.’23 Left to his own inner resources, the outcome of Ethernan’s retreat is far from certain.

In the initial series, Ethernan attempts to find solitude on the coast of Fife, only to be frustrated by others and by his own self-doubt. In the first poem, ‘Having abandoned his mission, Ethernan finds the Fife coast crowded with solitaries’, the saint is troubled by many would-be hermits, but recognises them as ‘my fellow peregrini in self-exile, the form / of ascetic renunciation most available to Irishmen.’24 Solie recognises Ethernan’s hermitage as part of a wider phenomenon, as Irish holy men fan out across the coasts of Ireland and Scotland, seeking a North Atlantic equivalent of the Near Eastern desert. In ‘Efforts are made to dissuade him from his retreat’, Ethernan looks with disgust at a worldly priest whom he knows will attempt to get him to abandon his solitude. Solie cites the First Synod of St Patrick as the source of such religious ‘laws’ as ‘he who does not cut his hair in the Roman manner, must / she who leaves hers uncovered, must not / no consort with pagans, no believing in vampires.’25 While the official church formulates such regulations to eliminate non-conforming local practices and beliefs, for Ethernan such rules are yet more worldly distraction from his goal of ‘ascetic renunciation.’ At the same time, Ethernan is painfully aware of the dangers of spiritual pride, a theme of the next poem in the series.

Solie explores how spiritual practice can both lead to pride and be perceived with a kind of crude literalism. Ethernan himself admits that he can no longer ‘be sure there ever was humility in it.’26 If he and his fellow ‘Companions of God’ came ‘to experience our visions as actual contests’, the reverence in which they were held produces a booming trade in relics.27 Eventually, the omnipresence of bodily death compromises the ability of Ethernan and his companions ‘to think metaphorically’; he ruefully comments, ‘we believed the things we said because we said them.’28 This unreflective, unquestioning certainty in collective belief leads Ethernan to experience a loss of his own voice, which, as we saw in the opening poem, is consistently uncertain and tentative. The final poem of the series finds him surrounded by the ‘rage and shame of creatures domesticated by brutality’, attempting solitude in ‘a region of caves with a hermit in each like worms in cabbages.’29 Here, Ethernan’s only consolation is to retreat into a silence that overwhelms him.

The second series consists of nine poems in which Ethernan contemplates relocating to May, an island off the coast that is the site of a later medieval monastery. He is tormented by physical discomfort, but a dream vision suggests that it is time for him to move on. Etharnan awakes one morning to discover someone has brought him bread, contrasting his reliance on human generosity with Paul the Hermit, to whom otters brought fish, and Kentigern, who survived ‘on grass and spring water.’30 He alludes to Kentigern’s ‘poor mother’, the subject of a separate poem in the collection. In the following poem, Ethernan gazes out at May, ‘a proper island, unlike Lindisfarne’, and realises that he is facing a choice to remain on the shore or to journey across the water to ‘that thorn in the sea.’31Hostilities were inevitable among the four peoples clustered around the Forth-Clyde line’ is the title of the next poem, which opens with Ethernan reflecting that even his ‘white martyrdom’ is not immune to the endemic warfare around him. Solie’s note identifies ‘white martyrdom’ as St Jerome’s designation for ‘the sacrifices of the desert fathers.’32 Ethernan continues his ‘standoff with the May’, which gazes at him across the water with ‘cop sunglasses.’33 The island is a sinister presence throughout these poems, and Solie is inventive with her metaphors, as when she describes ‘the May’s hair plastered to its skull, mascara running.’34 The final poem of the second series concludes with a challenge to the teaching that ‘no earthly thing is worthy of affection or contemplation.’35 As he admires the beauty of ‘barnacles, mussels, the Patella vulgata’, Ethernan concludes, ‘I see nothing fallen here.’36 Despite his rejection of Pelagius’s heretical teaching that original sin doesn’t exist, Ethernan cannot find evidence of the Fall in nature itself.

The third and final series of Ethernan poems is set on May. In the prefatory geographical poem, Solie connects the geological formation of the island with its later religious associations, describing its emergence as ‘an eruption deep in the ritual subconscious.’37 She draws attention to the way that official mapping of the island brings with it an imperial vision of the Scottish landscape detached from local tradition. ‘The Isle of May’ is a romantic-sounding name, but one ‘imposed upon it / by foreigners in the English Ordnance survey.’38 The inhospitable geography of the island has overwhelmed whatever traces of spiritual power might have been present: ‘Virtue has deserted its brackish wells.’39 Within the poems, Solie dramatises Ethernan’s struggle in an inhospitable landscape. The first of these is addressed to the figure of Paul the Hermit, whose baleful presence no longer intimidates Ethernan, who says, ‘I have looked into myself / the May is there.’40 Ethernan’s besieged inner self has become one with the island, whose fog-bound physicality Solie compares to a car ‘idling at the curb in a cloud of exhaust.’41 In the second poem, Ethernan regards ‘the great indifference’ of the island with a pained recognition that it can’t really sustain life.42 Reflecting on the loss of his former home in the Caiplie Caves, in the following poem Ethernan experiences a powerful sense of the raw physical beauty of his new home, where ‘the nearby newly astonishes / blooms practically sing to the eye.’43 The series concludes with another poem addressed to the absent Paul, in which Ethernan confesses his failure, describing himself as ‘a living argument against this sort of life.’44 As Katherine McLeod observes of this sequence, ‘Caught in indecision, the poems are preoccupied with the possibility of error: that, in making the wrong decision, this fault would make it impossible to return.’45

Haunted by ‘error’ and ‘fear’, he now faces a confrontation with the island: ‘the May has struggled to its feet / it’s turned its face toward me / it’s about to speak.’46 We do not hear what the island has to say. Ethernan’s fear and sense of error are the logical development of the doubt with which he began.

Outside of the Ethernan series, the Scottish texts that Solie draws upon tend to be informational and scientific. Her collection does not engage with modern Scottish poetry directly, though in the first of the poems identified by spatial co-ordinates, there is a possible allusion to Hugh MacDiarmid’s, ‘On a Raised Beach’, written in 1934 on Whalsay, Shetland. Solie describes one of the caves as a ‘Prominent / calcareous sandstone outcrop on a raised beach / level.’47 Calcareous sandstone is ‘sandstone containing appreciable calcium carbonate, but in which clastic quartz is present in excess of 50%.’48 Her vocabulary recalls some of the geological diction of MacDiarmid’s ‘On a Raised Beach’, but her fascination with scientific terms finds its fullest expression in a found poem (or a poem made up of found text – a characteristic of MacDiarmid’s poetry also), ‘From The Invertebrate Fauna of the Firth of Forth, Part 2, 1881.’

The first part of the poem arranges language from this nineteenth-century text by George Leslie and William A. Herdman into two columns, endowing it with the ghost of a narrative:49

Solie’s poem delights in the Latin names even as its white space comes to register a gap between the cool beauty of scientific taxonomy and the embodied presence of the speakers in specific places with distinct environmental conditions. In the second part of the poem, arranged as unrhymed couplets, the researches of Leslie and Herdman become even more clinical (‘We have dredged it. We have taken this species’) even as Solie finds phrases of rhythmic beauty and delicate description (‘well preserved, but not living; they lie in a bed of blue clay’).50 The nineteenth-century search for invertebrate fauna and the twenty-first-century making of the poem act as metaphors for each other, both grounded in the same geographical space. In the third and final section, a blank-verse sonnet, local place-names take their place alongside scientific terminology: Elie, Seafield, Crail, Fifeness, Prestonpans, Portseaton, Fidra, May and several others. Taken together, Solie’s poem suggests the importance of naming, but also the potential violence inherent in the way we impose ourselves on the material environment through language. The poem ends with a vision of scientific enquiry as quest liable to failure: ‘But Ophiocomina negra, a specimen / from Mr Damon marked “Black Rocks, Leith,” I have sought / at the lowest spring tides, without success.’51 Taken in the context of the collection as a whole, this failed secular quest mirrors that of Ethernan.

I would like to conclude by briefly considering one final poem from the collection that brings both Canada and Scotland into view, focusing on the impact heavy industry has on people and landscape. ‘You Can’t Go Back’ returns to the kind of landscape described by Michael Hofman as ‘edgeland’:

On Medicine Hat’s industrial verge, Dominion Glass released at intervals
balloons of black smoke with fire inside, like ideas

off the top of its head, that like ideas, were more impressive
after dark. Never did it not answer the question posed by its existence.52

The simile imagines the releasing of pollutants into the atmosphere as analogous to human thought. Unlike the doubtful figure of Ethernan, this factory has clarity of purpose, which it relentlessly fulfils. Solie contrasts this purposefulness with ‘second thought’s intuitive logic, / which has undoubtedly saved the ass of more than one glass factory.’53 Her example of this ‘intuitive logic’ at work is a man named Archie Young, who saved the United Glass of Edinburgh factory when he ‘crawled through its bowel with a rope around his waist.’54 This example of individual heroism is a counterpoint to both the ceaseless activity of the factory in Medicine Hat which, Solie recalls ‘operated around the clock’, and the impersonality of corporate decision making: ‘Rough men cried in ’67 when United Glass received its closure notice // despite the apparent health of its enterprise, no-one could understand it.’55 The poem concludes by returning to the theme of error explored in the Ethernan poems: ‘Rumours of a clerical mistake that spared a factory in England // at United’s expense trickled down from management, but error had long since crystallised in the system, and it was too late.’56 The ‘system’ of capitalist industry replicates the relentlessness of the factories it controls, unable to check its own ‘crystallised’ errors, polluting the environment and exploiting workers in both Scotland and Canada.

As this preliminary exploration of The Caiplie Caves suggests, Solie brings thematic unity to her collection by repeatedly exploring the nature of failure and error in individual lyric poems as well as the Ethernan sequences. Her attraction to the coast of Fife is consistent with the ‘edgeland’ focus of Solie’s earlier work, and she brings a fresh Canadian eye to the particularities of Scottish landscape and history.


End Notes

  1. Michael Hofman, ‘Karen Solie’, in Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014, p. 188.
  2. Ibid., p. 188.
  3. Ibid., p. 188.
  4. Camille Ralphs, ‘Worms in Cabbage’, Times Literary Supplement, November 22, 2019.
  5. Katherine McLeod, ‘Living Caves’, Canadian Literature, 31 August 2020.
  6. Ange Mlinko, ‘Acts of Extreme Attention’, The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019.
  7. Ibid.
  8. David Orr, ‘A Canadian Poet Channels a 7th-Century Scottish Hermit’, The New York Times, September 3, 2020.
  9. Peter Yeoman, ‘Pilgrims to St Ethernan: the Archaeology of an Early Saint of the Picts and Scots’, in Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, ed. Barbara E. Crawford. The Committee for Dark Age Studies, The University of Saint Andrews, 1998, p. 77.
  10. Ibid., p. 77.
  11. Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves, Picador, 2019, pp. xi–xii.
  12. Ibid., p. xi.
  13. Yeoman, ‘Pilgrims to St Ethernan’, p. 75.
  14. Ibid., p. 75.
  15. Ibid., pp. 75–76.
  16. Ibid., p. 77.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Solie, Caiplie Caves, p. xi.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ralphs, ‘Worms in Cabbage’.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Solie, Caiplie Caves, p. 1.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., p. 12.
  25. Ibid., p. 13.
  26. Ibid., p. 14.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 15.
  29. Ibid., p. 17.
  30. Ibid., p. 38.
  31. Ibid., p. 41.
  32. Ibid., p. 115.
  33. Ibid., p. 43.
  34. Ibid., p. 49.
  35. Ibid., p. 54.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., p. 94.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid., p. 96.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., p. 98.
  43. Ibid., p. 100.
  44. Ibid., p. 101.
  45. McLeod, ‘Living Caves’.
  46. Solie, Caiplie Caves, p. 102.
  47. Ibid., p. 11.
  48. ‘Calcereous sandstone’,
  49. Solie, Caiplie Caves, p. 57.
  50. Ibid., p. 58, p. 59.
  51. Ibid., p. 59.
  52. Ibid., p. 103.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., p. 104.
  56. Ibid.
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Paul Robichaud

Paul Robichaud is the author of Pan: the Great God’s Modern Return (forthcoming, 2021), Making the Past Present: David Jones, the Middle Ages, and Modernism (2007), and articles on a variety of English, Scottish, and Irish writers. A native of Toronto, he is currently Professor and Chair of English at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut.

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