Compelled by loss of knowledge, species, habitat and traditions, with this collection Kavanagh attempts to elucidate the endurance of what is no longer physically apparent. Extinctions and an exploration of the Red List (the endangered species list for Nova Scotia) are important to this work. The poems grapple with human culpability, but also ask: What will happen as human relationships with non-human animals and other living things diminish? What will happen if we become extinct? These larger questions about our future in a changing climate are inextricably linked to specific inquiries into what we have lost by reducing certain habitats, hunting species to the brink of extinction, and abandoning place-specific traditions and practices. Our sadness surrounding extinction seems to confirm E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia (life-loving) hypothesis, our basic need for other life; however, a uniquely human self-loathing distances us from the very life-affirming and life-giving connections that we require. How do we move beyond despair? What happens after extinction? What is regained through the revival of traditions, the restoration of habitats, re-introductions of species? Is this a moment to be both patient and visionary, to see beyond destruction to whatever natural renewal will occur without more intervention, or should we cautiously explore the “re-animations” and “de-extinctions” proposed by the scientific community?
Basma Kavanagh’s spritely genius is both fierce and delicate, biologically exact and artistically complex. This is work of wide scope: deep, informed mourning for what humans have done to the earth, and equally deep, equally informed hope for what might survive us.
Basma Kavanagh’s Niche is a smart, sensitive, and probing poetic inquiry into the “how” of extinctions and the “how” of what next. Formally diverse and linguistically vigorous, Niche does not shy away from the urgent and necessary questions evoked by the loss of species, habitats and forms of knowledge, ultimately offering language itself as a dynamic niche for examining our responsibilities and inventing possible futures.
Lansdowne Poetry Prize Jury
Niche is a collection of poetry described as “layered, clever, and accessible” by the 2019 jury members. The highly-original work by Kavanagh features poetry and writing punctuated with field journal, encyclopedia-style imagery, making “startling connections” between human civilization and the larger ecological system we seek to categorize yet simultaneously destroy. The work evokes feelings of immediacy and urgency as it delves deeply and unrelentingly into the undeniable reality of our world: nature is everlasting, humanity is not. It poses timely and important questions, challenging readers to consider the ways in which our “progress” is potentially speeding us towards our own extinction and poignantly depicting the ways in which the world will heal once we are no longer a part of it.
The jury praised Kavanagh’s ability to situate herself and her own experience in the work, deftly weaving with respectful fingers a narrative lacking appropriation but wherein the many cultures and histories impacting the land and the world are given their due. The complexity of the work is remarkable, as is its ability to call out our atrocities while also illuminating the ways in which we may yet save ourselves. As the jury commented: “Niche is what everyone should read today.”
Nova Scotia Masterworks Art Award Jury
- Winner, 2016 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry, Manitoba Book Award
- Finalist, 2019 NS Masterworks Arts Award
- Shortlist, 2016 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry, Book Publishers Association of Alberta