Tender but Uneasy

  • Basma Kavanagh
    Ruba'iyat for the Time of Apricots. Frontenac House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Samantha Bernstein
    Spit on the Devil. Mansfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Mary Corkery
    Simultaneous Windows. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jessi MacEachern

Samantha Bernstein, Mary Corkery, and Basma Kavanagh have written three startlingly distinct poetry debuts. Where Bernstein’s Spit on the Devil bristles against sentimentality, Corkery’s Simultaneous Windows dares to embrace cliché. When Kavanagh calls for political community in Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots, Bernstein dallies in an isolated urban landscape. As Corkery fixates on cultural others, Kavanagh discovers the other inside herself.

Bernstein’s collection traces the seemingly autobiographical details of the life of a poet who happens to be Irving Layton’s daughter. She tackles his legacy in “On the Death of my Father,” wherein by passing he has “done / what any good patriarch should: / initiate me into the customs of my tribe.” Certainly, Bernstein invokes Judaism here, but the line also cements her place in Canadian poetry. What further embeds this blossoming reputation is the strength of the poems themselves: striking in imagery, experimental in form, and alternately dark and wistful. Consider the poem “Lessons on Optimism,” in which the lines present an image of urban dailiness: a panhandler at a changing light, a Tim Hortons in Etobicoke, College Street in moonlight. Domestic life interferes with the city landscape in “2008,” when “the daycare babies come bawling.” A few poems later, in “The First Month,” one of the bawling babies has made its way inside the home. This is the first of several tender portraits exploring the love between mother and child. The  lines form an uneasy embrace of this new way of being.

In “Industrial Evolution (A Reprise),” the seven sprawling parts dart across the page and leave gaps in the body of the poem—mirroring the gap left by the poem’s young man. After these ghosts leave the “empty stage” of their youth, the collection leads into the aphorism of its title poem: “‘Spit on the Devil,’ my mother says when I praise / my good fortune.” But the speaker refuses to play so loosely with happiness, so she embarks on a pathway separate from that of mother and father both, one that revels in a certain amount of recklessness. In the book’s final poem, the apostrophic “Dear Reader,” Bernstein crafts an alluring Canadian vignette of liberal desires, insurance ads, and obsession with American news. The result is a dynamic new voice in Canadian literature that is as concerned with the “careful selection of emojis” as with the question: “How shall we give love its definition?”

The title poem of Corkery’s Simultaneous Windows demonstrates the poet’s unique mastery of form: three tight tercets with a nearly perfect adherence to ten syllables per line, a counting measure akin to the nervy poetry of Marianne Moore. Zigzagging across the landscape of memory are nostalgic recollections of a rural childhood—the book opens on “Why I Can’t Sleep,” seven prose poems offering snapshots of a child’s fears—and exotic portraits of elsewhere. Though Corkery herself, according to her professional biography, has experience with international justice, these travel poems often smack of voyeurism. In describing the ringing gunshots of the West Bank or the violence in Rwanda, Corkery doesn’t quite succeed in crossing the emotional or geographical distance. Corkery is most successful during her characteristic final stanzas, which spill across the page in fragmented forms and linger on abstract images: “a slice of sky,” “a sparrow,” “one infinite moment.”

Kavanagh is more successful in weaving together separate times and places. Her collection is a single long poem, crafted according to the ruba’iyat (or quatrain). Each stanza is singular, yet inextricable from the others. Each page is followed by a short collection of words written in Arabic and translated into English. Between these two languages, Kavanagh wields poetry as a tool for survival: “Sisters, braid words into your hair, sprinkle words onto food.” One focus of this lyric poem is motherhood. Unlike Bernstein, though, it is not an embryo but a poem this speaker gestates: “I trust my poem grows inside me while I scrub the floor / and tend my garden.”

Mothers and daughters form one of the three connected threads of this poem; the others are the earth itself and the violence of men. Kavanagh advises women “to birth a new world” and men to “unlace the rigid armour you’ve come to know as skin”—in order that both factions of the divided earth may “soften” and heal their wounded home. Though the final page of the collection has the speaker admitting, “I’m slow to bloom,” this collection is already demonstrative of a steady, accomplished hand.



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