Distillō, Basma Kavanagh

2012, Gaspereau Press, Kentville NS

$19.95, 978-1-55447-115-7, 96 pages

reviewed by rob mclennan


Kentville, Nova Scotia poet, painter and letterpress printer Basma Kavanagh’s first trade poetry collection, Distillō (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2012), is a self-described “poetics of description,” a collection she dedicates to her father, as well as “the people, places, plants, animals and energies of the North Island.” The “poetics of description” is an interesting one, and I’m not entirely clear if the strength of her poems lay in the descriptive lyric she claims to favour, over the point where description gives way to an abstract essence, writing instead of the natural world in a way that isn’t descriptive. But self-description is a funny, deceptive thing; it can function as argument, eventual goal or steel trap, preventing either author or reader from ever seeing past it. Even her opening line contradicts the description, writing “Blood is mostly water.” Is this description, or something other?




False Hellebore, Devil’s Bite

Veratrum viride


Lily-like pleated leaves,

parallel-veined, clasp


an elegant wand of stalk

dangling blossoms, holding


your gaze, sussing you out,

fibrous fingers probing organs


fine roots testing throat.

Are you ill?


The woods are full

of dangerous medicine.


It shakes its rattle of leaves,

whispers something, offers


its right hand, its left—

a gift.


There is an element to her poems composed as small studies, each one written as a short essay on or around a particular subject/topic, along the lines of Anne Carson’s Short Talks (London ON: Brick Books, 1992), as though her poems are not only exploring the lines between nature and poetry, but the very nature of nature itself. The first poem of the collection, for example, “TAXONOMY,” is a short sequence of poems, each with a title in Latin, with explanation. The poems skim along the stretch of definition before diving in, and deepening, beyond description into something further, exploring the idea as well as certain facts. One could even see that her letterpress work might make her aware of each impression, and the weight of each word, each letter, and there is an economy of language here, one that appears to be her strength, and one that hopefully will develop.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com