This book-length poem comprises three interwoven threads: Ahli, an auto/biographical thread about Kavanagh’s Lebanese heritage; Astura, a grim tale linking climate change and the oppression of women, and Ana, a reflection on identity, language, and writing. To tell a story of her mother, her mothers’ sisters, and their mother—a story of tradition, gesture, ritual, transformation, and self—
is to persist against the erasure of the nuanced and tenacious feminine histories that co-exist with our troubled present and its bland stereotypes.
Like a seed, a family story houses its ancestors and the diversity—genetic and experiential—that equips us to thrive in a multitude of possible futures. Written in quatrains, called ruba’iyat in Arabic, from the word for “four”, each stanza of this poem is self-contained, yet converses with adjacent stanzas to build narratives. The repetition of phrases across stanzas, and the studding of the text with Arabic words, combine to create a layered, incantatory quality evoking the complexity of Arabic oral poetry.
Longing for and the inhabiting of Arabic cadences in careful elegant lines, here, a sonic autobiography moves and exchanges with family, mother, sister, womb and body. We notice textures of fruit, the overlay of dream and the slippage of language, time, and being and yet there is something that touches all this as the voice speaks, “I scoop the crushed beans with a wolf’s ear of pita…”, garlic, garden, Sana’, and the memory of generations of distant ‘calligraphy on the wall.” Rare bilingual elixirs, of separationswithin an enduring cultural body though the “conjugated” filters of word-music.
Juan Felipe Herrera
Each poem nests its own oasis, rich with a child’s naming of things into Arabic: “I plant garlic, thoum, in
long rows elegant as couplets.” Where “life was lean, thin-shanked as new lambs,” this daughter’s stake
in earth becomes the “warm migration” of language, her life-blood. With languid word-pictures that
fight for the tune of their calligraphy, Kavanagh wins that wise and supple music, remaking what is lost.
Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots is a deeply affecting book-length poem that travels many realms in its stanzas. In structure it is beautiful—a ruba’iyat, groups of quatrains that build multiple narratives as they link or diverge—and these sophisticated yet raw narratives include family histories, descriptions of
Lebanon, and identity, especially that of women. Basma Kavanagh’s long poem engages viscerally with
the sensual world, in minute detail. She does this through descriptions of labour—loving, routine, or
forced, details of flora and fauna, sound, touch, and the taste of food. There is a sense of song about the
poem – the verses travel internally and externally, with mesmerizing rhythms broken through by
startling observations. Arabic words and phrases are interspersed and add a complexity and specificity
to the text that connects it further to the chosen form of the poem. It is a deeply personal as well as
political work, with the collective history of women’s lives described through the experiences of
mothers, sisters, daughters.
J.M. Abraham, Poetry Award Jury
- Winner, Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry, Alberta Book Publishers Association
- Shortlisted, J.M. Abraham Poetry Award
- Longlisted, Nelson Ball Prize
I was able to write this book with the generous support of the Manitoba Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.