The Sig­nif­i­cance of Moths by Shirley Camia, Turn­stone Press, 85 pages, $17.00


“Was it a re­gret com­ing to a place like this?” asks Shirley Camia in her sec­ond col­lec­tion of po­etry, The Sig­nif­i­cance of Moths. Like the moths that mi­grate long dis­tances in search of a bet­ter life, it’s the quin­tes­sen­tial ques­tion for those who jour­neyed far from home to chase the “Cana­dian dream.”

The col­lec­tion opens with the pass­ing of lola— the Span­ish-de­rived term for grand­mother— where

“brown moths cir­cle like carousels” dur­ing her wake. In Filipino cul­ture, there is a be­lief that the de­ceased may re­turn in the form of a moth. Th­ese spirit-me­mories per­me­ate

Camia’s work, tran­scend­ing both time and ge­og­ra­phy, like “strands of the past / bound to the pre­sent.” Each of the six sec­tions ex­plores the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional im­pact of un­re­solved loss and the search for a sense of home—in the old coun­try, in the new coun­try—while be­ing end­lessly caught some­where in-be­tween.

The sec­tions eas­ily shift in and out of gen­er­a­tional flash­backs, beginning with the fleet­ing me­mories of a mother’s child­hood in the Philip­pines and even­tual de­par­ture to Canada, to her own daugh­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up in Canada as the child of im­mi­grants. From the sub­merged rice fields of the Philip­pines to the canola fields of Canada, the spir­its of those left be­hind linger in the “scat­tered ex­changes” of “pic­tures with cor­ners bent”; the “huffs of breath and moody sighs” across long dis­tance calls; and the ba­lik­bayan gift boxes that over­seas Filipinos send to fam­i­lies and friends back home. They are silent feel­ings of loss “etched on our tongues,” yet have no voice.

Camia mas­ter­fully em­ploys a min­i­mal­ist po­etic style—strings of short, abrupt thoughts are packed with ex­pres­sive, mean­ing­ful im­agery. Each line flows smoothly into the next, ef­fort­lessly de­liv­er­ing a vivid pic­ture with no more than a few words, and with­out the help of cap­i­tal­iza­tion or punc­tu­a­tion. Camia’s sub­tle use of Ta­ga­log terms and im­agery spe­cific to the lush land­scape of the Philip­pines—like the sweet smell of the na­tional flower sam­pa­guita— adds a nos­tal­gic di­men­sion. Her po­ems are uniquely named, ex­cept for “The Def­i­ni­tion of Home,” which ap­pears three times—in the beginning, mid­dle, and end—each with a dis­tinct gen­er­a­tional view­point on what “home” is.

The mother’s feel­ings of pro­found loss are am­pli­fied as the “Cana­dian dream” be­comes more unattain­able, “dreams / like fam­i­lies / splin­ter,” writes Camia. Racial­ized and gen­dered labour in Canada are brought to the fore, where long hours of “stitch af­ter stitch” needle­work at the gar­ment fac­tory be­come a woman’s re­al­ity. And as the mother cleans toi­lets on her “road / to dis­tant riches,” Camia, like many chil­dren of im­mi­grants, asks if it was still worth it: “tell me / when you look / at your an­gry worn hands / was it.”

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