“In an extinction event of our own making, what happens to us?” asks journalist and Williams College professor Elizabeth Kolbert in the concluding pages of her 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert’s question has surely begun to haunt her readers long before they reach the end of the book. Similar questions, approached from various angles, make Basma Kavanagh’s latest full-length poetry collection an equally haunting reading experience.
The first of these questions is placed – or niched – at the end of her opening poem. Responding to the five lines by Pablo Neruda (as translated by William O’Daly) that open the book, Kavanagh writes: “There is no way to go on living – / even with the land in your blood / still singing. What then, / you cry, what then?”
Historical imagery, such as a skeleton of the now extinct great auk, and various source texts figure largely in the work; the two pages of notes show that Kavanagh has spent much time considering the Red List of threatened species, extinct species, and our own species’ relationships and impact over time.
The strong prose poems “Pinguicula dreamer,” “Red Knot dreamer,” “Boreal felt lichen dreamer,” and “Little Brown Bat dreamer” – intriguing in detail and intimate in tone – lay bare the subject of vulnerability. The more playful how-to poems, while also surprising and unsettling, forego the same close attention to detail and therefore prove less engaging. The distancing is intentional in the poem “How to skin a hamlet,” a reinterpretation of “How to Skin Eels” from Marie Nightingale’s book Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens. The poem begins by instructing the reader to “Nail the village up by the tail.” Nothing in this prose poem is given a proper name: this, the imperative sentences suggest, is a recipe for the end.
What then? With taut lines and quick turns, the visionary “Coda,” shortlisted for the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize (and another of the book’s highlights), imagines a world without us in it. This, you’d think, would make for grim reading, but no. Focusing on our collective lot and loss, Niche contains hope in the force of its engagement and imaginings.