Toronto poet Shirley Camia maps the immigrant experience through lyric minimalism and vivid imagery in her second collection, The Significance of Moths. Divided into six sections — “In the Palm of an Evening,” “The Portrait Unravelling,” “Humbled Knowing,” “A Song from the Old Country,” “The Generation After,” and “Straddling Worlds” — her exploration starts with her grandmother’s death before slipping into flashbacks of her mother’s childhood in the Philippines. From there, she writes about her mother’s departure to Canada and her own childhood as the daughter of immigrants, interspersing the narrative with snapshots of visits to her parents’ home country. This portrait of a Filipino-Canadian family teems with Tagalog and Spanish words and phrases as well as multiple references to both of the author’s cultures.
In these poems, Camia evokes what Dany Laferrière has called “l’énigme du retour,”1 the inability of the immigrant to ever truly belong at “home” again after living so long abroad. Consider, for example, the stanzas that make up “Galing sa Abroad”:2
how does it feel
to have no connection
to the place you call
where you’re met with open palms
that rattle and nag at your guilt
dig deep into your pockets
for (this will not) change (45)
Often writing in fragment sentences that are then further fractured, Camia practices a minimalism of ornate but sparse language, gliding from one image or observation to another in a way that recalls the form and tradition of the haiku. Because of her style and subject matter, it is hard not to compare Camia to Souvankham Thammavongsa, a master of minimalism in contemporary Canadian poetry. Despite a certain similarity, there are also obvious differences between the two authors. Notably, Camia’s book is more explicitly narrative in its structure and her language even more pared down in its absence of punctuation and capitalization. In their concision, her poems read like concentrated versions of longer works, their images and characters evoking greater backstories and a raw, palpable tension, lending a heft to Camia’s slight volume.
Full review printed in the Fall 2016 issue of CV2.
1. After the title of his book, L’énigme du retour (Boréal, 2009), which is itself a play on Aimé Césaire’s canonical long poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, first published in the journal Volontés in 1939.
2. The title means “came from abroad” in Tagalog, as indicated in the volume’s glossary and notes (83-84).