As the title suggests, these are not rose-tinted memories of home but memoirs of growing up as witness to domestic violence and addiction, then in turn surviving the same. There’s nothing cosy here and no triumph over adversity either, but the messy job of survival and making a way through life when you have no examples to guide you. The opening poem, “Involuntary Endurance”, sets the tone,
“It is not the mother bear’s story.
It belongs to the cubs who wander
The forest without her after she sacrificed
Her life to a boar grizzly to protect them.
It is told through hot cylinders of pain
That sear experience into the skin.
It is told in front of the sharp bayonet
That sprays blood-red existence against
The multi-colored palette of the universe.
It may sit silent and still
On these black and white pages,
But it exists in every tremble
Of my leathered hand, and it is smeared
Into every tear-stained scream
that flows through my quavering pen.”
A predatory father and a mother worn into passivity, trying to protect her children don’t make great role models. Katerina Canyon clarifies that this isn’t a story about how her parents fell into those roles, but the effects those roles had on their children. Of course, none of us have perfect childhoods, but some start with greater disadvantages and parents so caught in their own drama, the children are unsupported and practically raise themselves. However, there’s also a risk they recreate the bad examples they learnt from, e.g. in “An Afterthought of a Netflix Show”,
“My mother lived with a man who abused her
every day. She said there was nowhere to go.
She died before I hit 20.
When I grew up, I lived with a man
who abused me everyday.”
Without a template of what love and respect should look like, children don’t recognise love and see abuse as normal. Abusers do dole out morsels of kindness and love alongside the abuse to keep the victim chained to them and isolate their victims from friends or relatives who might have helped them escape or give them some perspective on the relationship. When caught up in abuse, the victim doesn’t have the breathing space to step back and assess the relationship. It doesn’t stop the children dreaming of love. In “Child Bride”,
“I wish for ice cream
Melting over my tongue
I hope for an lovely prince
Who can rescue me like a lost kitten
I wish for a feathery life
I wish for a great deal
Every girl is supposed to dream of a white wedding and a princess dress. The wishes here are childlike – ice cream treats, kittens, a prince fresh from a fairytale. But marriages happen between adults. This child bride hopes for the childhood she didn’t have. The marriage feels doomed.
Domestic violence is only one type of violence. There’s also racist violence, in “A Petition for Unrecognized Children”, the speaker asks
“If my daughter dies in a shooting,
Do not bury her.
Lay her at the feet of those
Made from stone,
So that they may see their work.
If my son dies, raise him up
In place of the flag, so the world
Can see what we worship!
—And for the rest,
Leave the graves empty and
Pile the bodies before the throne.
Enjoin the corpses hand by hand
Across the Washington Mall.
You killed them, our children,
and you will kill more—before the sun sets
And pluck out our eyes
to spare us!”
The speaker doesn’t want the victims tidied away into graveyards so life can continue, little changed. She wants the perpetrators held responsible, to see the results of their actions. She wants politicians to see the results of their policies and lack of action. She regards looking away and not seeing as unacceptable. Talk is not good enough any more.
Racism is picked up again in “I Left Out ‘Bells and Whistles’ Written with a Little Help from Websters Dictionary”,
“The year I was born
was the same year
the term ‘assault weapon’
Later, another phrase, “Band-Aids taught me the meaning/ of flesh-toned”. Of course, ‘flesh-toned’ was based on white skin, not black and white skin-toned plasters are all too visible on black skin. It’s only recently that black ballerinas have been able to buy shoes in their skin tones rather than the standard pink. The poem continues,
“White people like to say that I’m
‘playing the race card’ to
delegitimize my argument.
‘Delegitimize’ is my twin, and
we are inseparable.
Russia delegitimizes the election.
All Lives Matter delegitimizes Black Lives Matter.
Confederate statues delegitimize racial struggles.
Voting law often delegitimizes the black vote.”
“Playing the race card” implies using discrimination to an advantage, claiming under representation to gain representation which may not have been achieved through merit. Naturally all lives matter, but it isn’t white lives being prematurely ended by police killings. It isn’t white lives being disproporationately stopped and searched by police who seem to assume guilt on the basis of skin colour. Changes in voting regulations, often raise barriers to black voters, making it harder for politicians to challenge the status quo and effect change.
Katerina Canyon’s poems are hard-hitting and direct. “Surviving Home” explores how a place that’s supposed to be safe can be dangerous. How domestic violence affects not just the immediate victims but the children forced to witness it, no matter how much the parents believe they have hidden it from the children. It also has an impact that lasts beyond childhood. The poems also shift to investigate racism and how it restricts talent and expression. Underneath all the poems is a muscular strengthen, a champion for survivors.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
“The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz“, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.
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