Children Shouldn’t Use Knives by Shirley Camia

Aug 9, 2018

Shirley Camia’s eleven spare, imagistic poems are so very slight—wispy, flickering at the edges of what children perceive and remember. Filled out by title pages, epigraph pages, and Cindy Mochizuki’s graceful, taut, drawings, they still make a very slim volume.

The beauty and meaning of the poems comes from their tensions and spaces: “what goes on inside a child’s mind,” the second poem, “Turning Point,” asks or states, and the poems embody that question/answer in their lacunae and associative disorder. In the book’s first poem, “Stranger,” “a flock of trees/shadows the daylight,” bringing with it a disturbance: powerlessness, then gender identification, then, at the poem’s end, the appearance of the stranger. The poem’s slightness and inversion mimic the helplessness of the young child, with her just-emerging sense of self, of sequence and boundaries, of syntax, to articulate trauma. In “Turning Point,” the child must weigh the itemized list of verbal weapons in the arsenal of the “strange man,…who asks for her name/who calls her a bad girl/who tells her not to run” against the tiny thread of the interior “voice” that asserts that she is not wrong. The child’s coming to awareness after trauma, in the poem “The Morning After,” is a painful thawing: “warmth haunts like a betrayal.” Later in the book, the lines “after the stranger/freedom comes in words” are a welcome affirmation, a relief, and we are happy to read the admonition “throw some dirt/on that place… and bury it.” “[S]he won’t be there long,” we are told.

Do we truly see this freedom words bring, though? Some of the poems felt too spare. I really wanted to know more about the uncle down the stairs, whom the child hides from authority with her lies, or the blood on the child’s dress, or the spilled milk. I sometimes couldn’t ascertain the emotional weight of the images with what was given. There are some statements that, for me, fell flat in their abstraction: “brings with it/shame” was one; “undoes her trust,” another. They didn’t have the force of the impressionistic child’s images and language that work elsewhere. Other flattish lines were almost rescued by juxtaposition: in the poem “In Transit,” the lines “her power/rising” seem tired and clichéd, but the next line, “with the edges of day” lifts them, as does the phrase “travelling dawn.”

But there are passages of imagistic brilliance that, as the poem “Through a Child’s Window” says, “poke violently through” like “stabs of sunlight.” One example, from this poem: clouds are “a parade of elephants/crossing an amber/traffic light/backwards.” Yes! Here the music of the lines, the freshness of the image, and the metaphor lift the poem into transcendence. The heaviness of the elephants is held in tension with the lightness of the tenor, clouds, and the lightness of the child’s imaginative powers; the amber evokes both sunlight and the traffic light’s warning of danger; the backwards procession of the elephants reminds us of the inversion we’ve seen in earlier poems, in the child’s efforts to articulate experience, and the backwards parade of memory itself.

This little book is difficult to categorize: it’s a curation, rather than a collection of poems, perhaps, or a tiny jewelled curiosity, equivalent to a single rich poem on a broadsheet. But what a curating! The delightfully apropos epigraphs, all from my favourite classic childhood books, contribute a sparkling set of lenses that refract and heighten the individual poems, and the illustrations…

There’s something so pleasing about Cindy Mochizuki’s illustrations, which I discovered first in my own children’s books a couple of decades ago. In Children Shouldn’t Use Knives, they are informal, almost doodles, but each also as pleasingly full of tension as a teetering stack of books used as a ladder. The child in the drawing is small, unformed, tender: a both blank slate and possessor of selfhood at the same time, as children are: a creator, in possession of paper and pens, connected irrevocably to other entities in her life by the line of the pen and the links of flower chains, both: culture and nature.

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives won honourable mention in the Alcuin Society Design Book Award, so applause to designer Matthew Stevens, as well.

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives
by Shirley Camia; illustrations by Cindy Mochizuki
At Bay Press, 2017, 64 pp., $19.95
ISBN: 9781988168098

Karen Hofmann has published fiction and poetry in several literary magazines, including Prairie Fire. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel will be published in 2017. Karen teaches literature, composition, and creative writing at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. Her writing explores relationships, especially of family, and the landscapes of the BC Interior.

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