Three epigraphs open Basma Kavanagh’s Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots. The first, from Joy Harjo’s Remember, honours the “mother,” her presence forever evident in her child; the second, from Mahmoud Darwish’s Nothing Pleases Me, questions identity or self; and the third,from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, reminds us how the past is so much a part of the present. These three themes inform Kavanagh’s book length meditative poem on her Lebanese heritage, the beauty and fragility of the natural world, and the power of language and writing.
In Rubi’yat, Kavanagh uses a modified version of the traditional Persian ruba’i, shortening it to three four-line stanzas, with three stanzas per page and no rhyme. The use of this form, along with the inclusion of Arabic words and their translations on the bottom of certain pages and within the ruba’i, are integral to her narrative–“If the limits of my language mean / the limits of my world, each foreign word a tunnel out.” (25) Indeed, her choice of words is telling: words for cooking, spices, gardens and water, words for women’s work and for their relationships with each other and with men in family and community, words about writing, language, and destiny. By weaving these words into her writing, Kavanagh recalls her inheritance, reaching back in particular to engage with the arc of women’s lives and their close association with the land–a land once giving and productive reduced by devastating drought. Later, when she writes: “A poem is a sea of words, an oar, a boat. A room, / a tent, a house; a shelter language built.” (47), she circles forward around the paired notions of home/self, affirms that they are both inherited and earned through careful reflection.
While Kavanagh situates herself in the Nova Scotian geography that surrounds her–“Waves dash / against sand, form again.” (7); “I study frost flowers formed in silence on winter nights, …” (39)–she also locates herself in the Lebanese landscape that shaped her mother, its taste, smells and superstitions. She writes, “Return—I return—to an egg that formed in my mother’s / womb, while in her mother’s womb, confined to her stifling house / and searing garden. My sister, brother, unborn sibling, / begun in our grandmother’s body. Of her, of that place.” (31) Moving between a Lebanon remembered/imagined and Canada now, each place shaped by its natural environment and climate, Kavanagh recovers and fixes her Lebanese heritage to her life in Canada. Of Lebanon, she writes, “Heart, that tough water pouch, fills from its hidden source, a fringed / oasis. No matter how it is squeezed, twisted, or wrung / out, it hides a few more drops, somehow replenishes. …” (28) Of Canada, she writes, “Stubborn snow persists north of tall pines where dense shade lingers / deep into each day. It dwindles, recedes from the hill’s plain / dome. No elegies for winter here, I kneel to breathe on / spring’s green coals, its little flames—crocus, chive, crimped rhubarb leaf.” (53) In every image, reference, and remembrance received, she establishes connections that both heighten the sense of loss and enrich her home/self.
Kavanagh’s narrative is a deeply resonant exploration of how inheritance, language and place work together to allow us to make home, and how home forms us. The motif of the apricot, gift of the earth, essential sustenance, its heady fruit ripe or dried, “Bil mishmush—in the time of apricots; rustic proverb, / a wish. …” (11), threads through the work. Though the apricot tree she plants in her northern garden fails to thrive, there is the maple, equally essential and divine. When she writes, “Last winter, we tapped a maple tree and drank its cold sap / straight, filled two glasses from our pail, one hand on the tree’s flank. / I have never tasted a drink more holy. …” (43), it is both a realization and a reassurance that home/self are equally fixed and forever capable of change.
Basma Kavanagh is a writer, artist and educator based in Nova Scotia, within Mi’kma’ki. Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots won the 2019 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry from the Book Publishers Association of Alberta and was shortlisted for the J. M. Abraham Atlantic Poetry Award. Her 2015 collection, Niche, was a finalist for the 2019 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award.
Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots: A Poem
by Basma Kavanagh
Frontenac House Poetry, 2018, 64 pp., $19.95
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.