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.”