In Passing

by Karen Solie

copyright ©Karen Solie 2001.

Night blind through Rogers Pass,
engine popping like a rabbit gun
after an ambush of tunnels,
I brake for tinfoil, bottles,
dead stares of twisted deer.
This moon-shot boneyard
is a seam of eyes.
Immigrant rail crews lost
to the slides of March
a century ago. Two Japanese dug out
clasped in each other’s arms,
a Norwegian frozen in the act
of filling his pipe. No time
even to bruise.
Hidamo. Wafilsewki. Mitsumi. Sodiatis. Sanquist.
Bronze and marble statues
for the meat ride to Glacier Station.
And the whores who died cold,
full of holes, in clapboard Columbia
or the pockmarked skin village
of Golden. A drunken doctor drowned
in a puddle of horse piss.
Years later, slide shooters
and dozers shoved 92 miles of highway
through the Selkirks’ seismic muscle,
and now my four seizing cylinders
whine for a tail wind
to Saskatchewan. I Go All The Way,
Number One croons
over archival mutterings caught
in the black throat of the old Connaught Tunnel
buried at the Summit. Accordian ballads
of accidents that wait to happen
in the rock face, snow
fall, concentrated gravity of the gorge.
My odometer books odds of sleep
in hands and head. The cat knows it,
moving through luggage in the back seat,
throwing sparks.

Notes on the Poem

In the white knuckle ride of a poem that is "In Passing", Karen Solie builds tension in striking ways. Let's take a closer look - if we dare! - at this singular selection from Solie's 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Short Haul Engine. We've explored with previous Poems of the Week (such as this one, and this one, and this one) just how surprisingly effective poems can be as showcases for compelling storytelling. Not only can "In Passing" easily join those three poems' lively and diverse company, but we think the poem also wields wickedly a literary device usually associated with forms and genres very different from poetry: suspense. The Writer's Digest is a publication that has guided writers and aspiring writers in honing their skills for close to 100 years. Although their advice on creating and sustaining suspense is directed to those crafting thrillers, mysteries and literary fiction, we think "In Passing" fulfills many of the criteria they specify. For example, in the section "Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy" ...
"We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires."
The poem's narrator is clearly so nervous and jumpy that: "I brake for tinfoil, bottles, dead stares of twisted deer." and "now my four seizing cylinders whine for a tail wind to Saskatchewan." pretty firmly suggests that what she most desires is to travel swiftly to an important destination, a home or sanctuary. That the narrator has an encyclopedic knowledge of the calamity and death that befalls those who traverse the terrain she is navigating illustrates both a nimble mind and very pessimistic, perhaps damaged spirit. "Accordian ballads / of accidents" strikes a note both whimsical and fatalistic, as does the odds-making with the odometer. Then our heart leaps to know that the harried narrator has a travel companion. Please, please, please nervous driver and apprehensive cat ... get out of this one alive.

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