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Book Reviews

Amateurs at Love

by Patricia Young


by Tess Liem

Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots

by Basma Kavanagh

Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots is the third book of poetry from writer and artist Basma Kavanagh. “Ruba’iyat” refers to a grouping of “ruba’i” – poems in a classical Persian four-line form not unlike the western quatrain. Kavanagh takes some liberties with her ruba’iyat: she does not employ end rhymes; each page contains three quatrains (or ruba’i); and the book is one continuous poem, without any titles or section dividers.

The poem is a pronounced encounter with tactile and lush objects, both indoors and out. Kavanagh has a passion for the specific names of things and for describing sensations: “warming loam, morel-like, edible.” Many of the quatrains describe actions of the hands – kneading dough, writing with a pen, crawling over land, tapping a maple tree.

The language and the imagery are lovely but in this uninterrupted form, the themes – women’s work, interdependence with the environment, eco-poetics – lose some urgency and become merely pretty. This happens because, in terms of time, there is no clear establishing unit through which the poem moves, and the decision to place three quatrains on each page seems to be more aesthetic than practical. On one page, the first quatrain notes that “twilight persists,” the second begins with the author “waking,” and in the third it’s night again. The three quatrains on a given page can jump anywhere without any apparent logic or drive. On another page, the first quatrain is about picking up a cocoon outside, the second is about the speaker’s grandmother cooking, and the third is about the previous winter. Places, images, and themes are revisited often in this scattershot manner; as a result, the long poem doesn’t cycle back on itself in a meaningful way, or move forward.

Amateurs at Love by Patricia Young could hardly be more different from Kavanagh’s book. In contrast to the meditative quality of Ruba’iyat, Young’s collection is largely irreverent and frequently playful. It also contains six highly differentiated parts featuring alternating sections of prose poems and lyrics.

The result is somewhat disjointed, while also being over-directed. In addition, not all sections relate to the title. The first section, “This could be anyone’s story,” reflects the book’s title most directly, with its anonymous him and her edging toward the loss of innocence and – eventually – other deaths. Less pertinent is the section called “Animal Tales,” in which each poem is named after a barnyard animal. In “Horse,” the equine eats fermented daisies and hallucinates.

The section called “Pangramic Love Songs” has the words of each poem’s title embedded in every subsequent line, in bold. While the repetition is a clever technique, bolding a single word in each line is hugely distracting. On the line level, these poems are the least strong in the collection, hamstrung by the conceit: “Farmer is as farmer was, I said, meaning our marriage / was a mess, Jack, a mess of broken tractor parts” (in the poem “Farmer Jack Realized That Big Yellow Quilts Were Expensive”).

Tess Liem’s Obits. is a highly accomplished debut – a book that seeks to carve out a place of mourning for people who find themselves othered and for selfhood that is not seen or acknowledged. Liem’s work is impressive on the line level and in its overall structure and quality of thought; the poet has achieved a fine balance between expressing and interrogating herself and incorporating external sources for material.

Individual poems make use of the page like a canvas – some are left-aligned, some centered, some scattered. The book has four discrete sections that communicate with each other and with the larger thematic project as a whole, yet each employs its own rules and motifs. A thread running through the entire collection, like a broken suite, comprises 11 poems, each called, simply, “Obit.”

Liem confronts a number of male writers – Shakespeare, the Stoics – for their omissions and false characterizations. In “The Jilt,” she asks of Freud, “Say who cares about those melancholy flirts anyway / Really, though who is caring for them?” Like Kavanagh, Liem is interested in how women labour, but here the lens is more skeptical than romantic. Attempting to achieve the perfect blonde hair, inheriting a wok, schlepping on the subway: Liem wonders about the merits and costs of womanhood and commands, “make your grief public.” There is a melancholy that sweeps through these poems, along with an unanswered question about its roots. Liem is resigned to her sadness as a condition but seeks connection: “She is sad, too, she will tell me she has questions, too.”

Obits. deftly balances the cerebral and the sentimental and has achieved something very difficult: it is a book that feels personally urgent for the poet yet also somehow encompasses the other who is reading it.