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Basma Kavanagh, Niche
Calgary: Frontenac House Press, 2015

Basma Kavanagh’s new collection, Niche, builds on ecopoetic concerns first raised in her debut collection, Distillō (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Her opening poem, “Call,” acts as a mythopoetic invocation that seeks to call nature back into fuller being: “call the wolf, cut coyote open to let it out, its wail. Let the forest fill with game.” The urgency of this imperative reflects Kavanagh’s insistence that we stay our “hunger for a while. Be hungry. Mourn. Pray.”

Much of the collection concerns itself with ritualized mourning, marking the losses humanity has brought to the natural environment. Moving beyond a simple sequence of poems on specific objects and animals, Kavanagh plays with multiple forms, voices, styles, structures and points of view to weave a compelling narrative of human intervention and ecological decline.

The penultimate section “Redlist” considers the extinction, extirpation, and endangerment of various flora and fauna species in Nova Scotia, the poet’s home province. In “Grilse” the poet observes that our species is often more concerned with cataloguing and description than conservation: “Now, more names than salmon—/ spring runs of dozens, not thousands.” The section ends with two poems, a dissection and an elegy, both entitled “Self-Loathing.” While grappling with the guilt associated with human culpability in ecological disaster, these poems imaginatively explore the potential of our own extinction and ask “if we die, what dies with us?”

The book contains numerous illustrations that echo the content of the poems in their depiction of extinct and endangered species (woodland caribou, little brown bat, the great auk) as well as human tools and implements (cod hook and jig, instruments used in cutting a whale). Not only do these illustrations reinforce the poems’ exploration of human interaction with the natural world, they also represent Kavanagh’s insistence that her words are not simply self-referential but have a vital connection to tangible reality. Kavanagh’s thorough research appears in her employment of scientific nomenclature and archival inquiry; however, her language of natural description transcends academic objectivism—its visionary, almost shamanic, imaginings strive to revitalize our deadened relationship to the natural environment.

Kavanagh’s poems do not simply lament the passing of species, traditions of sustainability and the degradation of natural environments, they also attempt to map potential future paths. In her fourth and final section, “Cures,” Kavanagh meditates on de-industrialization, re-wilding, reclamation, collective mobilization and other efforts to reverse ecological decline. In the titular poem “Niche,” she muses on the fragility of our biosphere, that “cloud marbled, foreign, familiar,/ delicate moon mirror.” Kavanagh, in this diffuse, multichoral poem, goes on to wonder if living the experience of ecological disaster can produce an evolution in human empathy and asks, “can we sing tenderness, surrender, sing our ending, coax the future/ from a seed?”

While many of Basma Kavanagh’s poems can make the reader uncomfortable with their foregrounding of our shared responsibility and collective guilt, this discomfort should be read as the poet’s persistence in galvanizing change to our relationship with the natural world. In her final words, “this is just/ the beginning.”

 

D.S. Stymeist has published poems and articles in many magazines and journals and teaches at Carleton University. His poetry collection The Bone Weir is forthcoming with Frontenac House Press.

 

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