Friday, July 15, 2016

Basma Kavanagh, Niche

Front to back, Basma Kavanagh’s Niche is my favourite book of poetry this year: each turn of the page brought me something unexpected, even if she's pursuing some themes repeatedly throughout the book. The mythic as real comes up several times, in “How to Find New Myths,” for example, and extinction is a persistent theme:
We taste our death
in every extinction,
our extinction
in every death.
("Threatened," p.70: the whole poem, cf. Atwood's "You fit into me")
Kavanagh has the ability to adopt multiple perspectives in aid of a consistent ethic, speaking often for what I take to be some version of herself but also imagining herself (sometimes anthropomorphically) into the desires of the nonhuman:
The sphagnum bog tingles, its granite on edge, crests of Cladina lichen tender and expectant, alert to a pain that never arrives, forests of reindeer lichen with no reindeer in sight....
The ocean lacy and tattered, crumpling down to suffocating darkness as its auk-shaped, cod-shaped, salmon-shaped, tuna-shaped, walrus-shaped, leatherback-shaped, sea mink-shaped veins collapse. (“Phantom Limbs”, p.42 – prose poetry, I think)
These assorted themes and approaches come together in how Kavanagh reflects on human efforts to address the environmental crises of climate change, resource extraction, ocean acidification, and so on. At bottom, Kavanagh recognizes that any actions we take will lead to change that we will never ourselves see, and so the intimacy her readers seek with the world is never to be fully achieved—but that’s all the more reason for us to seek it.

And in the heartbreaking “Coda,” too, Kavanagh imagines the assorted happinesses that the world might experience after human extinction: “Only hawks will eat songbirds on the new earth, / no naked animal cover itself with another’s skin” (“Coda” part 4, p.107). Hers is a comprehensive sympathy, in other words, a sympathy even for humans in our collective inability to care for the world that made us, and that's an emotion I find myself craving. Sure, conservatives presumably loathed CBC for making the superficially humanity-hating "Coda" one of its 2014 poetry prize nominees, but who says those guys are reading attentively?

Seriously, this is a fantastic book, one that can be enjoyed by a whole lot of readers, and I know I've got some people I'm buying it for...

1 comment:

theresa said...

She's a wonderful writer. The poems are so rich and nuanced...