Review: A Child Who Became Enormous by Isabelle Kemp

Review: A Child Who Became Enormous by Isabelle Kemp

I first met David Bradford by reading his poems in the Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2022 where, in my mind, I created an entire personality for him based on the short list of works I read. When I finally met this Dawson alumnus in class, to my surprise, he was a soft-spoken man who managed to steady the mood of the room with his bright presence. Now further intrigued by this poet’s mind, I eagerly set down my cell phone so as not to miss a single word he was to say.

Bradford’s demeanour and wholesome smile shocked me, seeing as his poems left me uneasy. The dark themes of domestic abuse, witnessed by Bradford at such a young age, led me to believe that he would reflect in person the same somberness as his past. In this anthology, his poems are largely based on intergenerational abuse and the complex process of remembering traumatic events, especially those from a distant child- hood. His relationships with his father, his mother, and his grandmother, explored through both a child’s and an adult’s perspective, help piece together the story of his troubled past. Although, after making his acquaintance, I quickly realized that putting this trauma on paper does not define who he is, nor does it darken his presence. Instead, it simply acknowledges this particularly difficult time in his early life.

Bradford’s work in the anthology varies from short-lined poems with many stanzas to prose poems with bolded words and footnotes. Each of the seven poems reflects the poet’s childhood memories and recollections: central traumatic events enmeshed with the occasional resurgence of a distinct memory or feeling. His poetry shows his past pain as well as his present reflections. In “The Shower,” the bolded words “only … the /… way… I hear it… simple… repeating… accident… / colder with every second… lost… along the way?” follow Bradford’s deepest thoughts and reflect the difficulty of processing and remembering certain traumatic memories that defined his childhood (60-61, lines 12-44).

Rehashing these experiences brings to light a new perspective that allows Bradford to process events and think, “That’s pretty textbook physical abuse, that’s interesting, I didn’t think of that.” Once again, while listening to the poet, I was amazed by the distance he has created between himself and his past traumas. This allowed him to say those words with a smile and a subtle laugh. In “The Sandwich” this realization is shown as he remembers not even telling his mother about a recent violent encounter he had with his father. A child raised in an abusive household has a hard time understanding the severity of this physical harm and the extent of its lasting trauma. Intergenerational abuse is also introduced later in the same poem, when Bradford recalls a story of his grandmother abusing his father and saying she would, “… just beat him. / Sometimes with the iron. / [Bradford] saw the scars.” The poet draws a line between dwelling on events and processing them to a point where he is no longer restrained by their weight and influence (66, lines 16-18). “I wrote the big book, I did the big messy family thing; not gonna do it again,” Bradford said during our in-class Q and A, closing the door on writing about his abusive childhood in the future and showing how he has broken through the sombre veil of his childhood abuse.

Another overarching theme in Bradford’s writing is memory. He explains that “there are these rehearsed versions that [he’s] been hearing [his] whole life from family members of these moments” that don’t necessarily match reality. Whether memories are forgotten or altered consciously or not, seeking out the truth is all but simple. When inter- viewing his mother, Bradford says that “There’s a number of times where I asked the same question a bunch of times … and [every time] I got a completely different story and a completely different set of details.” The poet toys with this idea of memory and imagination in his poem “The Shower”, where he imagines the loneliness of being an only child, or rather a “single parent project”, after his mother’s death (60, lines 12-13). The process of memory can easily be confused with imagination, but after lots of thought, interviews, and work, Bradford confirms that “none of it is fictional, it’s all real.”

The style of Bradford’s poems also keyed me into his way of remem- bering the details of events. This is shown in poems like “Spoon”, where memories come crashing into each other, a chain reaction like the pile-up of cars, or like “Attention” where a memory leads to the recollection of another memory, and like “Wipe” where different memories are allowed to simply cross his mind without a second thought. These poems share a similar structure where short lines mirror short thoughts, and many stanzas represent many different elements of the memory. Another choice of structure is the bolding of certain words and the footnotes in Bradford’s prose poems. The grey words are his overall rehashing of events, the words in bold are details or sensations that stand out in his mind, and the footnotes are separate thoughts that came later, as he was working on his poetry. These elements of style come back in the poem “The Bat” where the poet is, again, analyzing the complex and sporadic process of memory. He writes:

I couldn’t say for sure, and I’m not sure my mother could either. How small she looked – almost off her feet, totally, mechanically pinned. His coffee breath sweeping across her face. And me, about ten, inching down the staircase, my size-27 aluminum in hand – Flite in an italic glide, a dynamo sky-blue swing, its cursive length – cry- ing. At least I think I was crying… (62, lines 10-16)

This passage presents the layers of memory the poet peels away at in his work. Bradford initially “couldn’t say for sure” what exactly happened during this tragedy, but then paints a perfectly clear scene of his father’s “coffee breath sweeping across [his mother’s] face” and the physical appearance of his bat (line 12). After this brief moment of clarity, differ- entiated from the rest of the words by dashes, Bradford once again ques- tions his memory. He states that he was crying at the time of the incident but, in a quick shift of thought, “at least [he] thinks [he was] crying…” (line 16). “The dark text is more like the inner monologue” according to Bradford. For example, the distinct memory of the “look” in his mother and father’s eyes and Bradford wanting his father “off [his mother]” shows this memory process (line 11). I imagined that rehashing such dark thoughts would lead to a permanently troubled person, but Bradford’s ability to openly speak of his traumas fortunately proved me wrong.

On a different note, although he has previously written in French, Bradford finds that “English is just so much more malleable.” Despite this reference, the poet’s bilingual identity shines through his work, particularly in “Un vent pour écorner les bœufs” where a silly French expression meets the city of Toronto on one of Bradford’s walks. Here, there’s a passing down of expressions from mother to mother to son. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but the poet seems to show us the simplicity of the relationship with his maternal grandmother, her French expressions crossing his mind like a street he walks by in the city. No negative associations or violent memories, only humorous turns of phrase, “As in venting or vein an acorn / less for corning an in vain” and his mother’s soft words of “ma petite cocotte” that he carries with him when the expression comes to mind (59, lines 3 and 17). This positivity matches Bradford’s general demeanour and wholesome presence.

Finally, How even holding a bat, a father remains enormous. How I remain a child. And fear of getting hurt, and maybe of killing him. But happy to go for his not moving. But somehow paralyzed, convinced regret would be triggered by death – his. Or what if he made me a permanently dark little thing? (p.62-63, lines 18-23) This final section of Bradford’s poem “The Bat” is probably my favou- rite, because of just how vulnerable he allowed himself to be while writing it. We are reminded that Bradford was a child when all these traumatic events happened and, despite the power and bravery of his poems today, he was made small by his father’s violence. Questioning the morals behind his actions, Bradford wonders if this lasting abuse will permanently darken him. This may be a concern of his but, based on my encounter with him and a new perspective while reading his work, there is no doubt in my mind when it comes to this poet’s bright presence and pure kindness. He was once made to feel small, but, despite his father, through poetry, he grew and, in turn, became the “enormous” person.


Works Cited

Bradford, David. “Attention.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 68-69.

Bradford, David. “Spoon.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 64.

Bradford, David. “The Bat.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 62-63.

Bradford, David. “The Sandwich.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 65-66.

Bradford, David. “The Shower.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, e dited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 60-61.

Bradford, David. “Un vent pour écorner les boeufs.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 59.

Bradford, David. “Wipe.” Griffin Poetry Prize: Anthology 2022, edited by Adam Dickenson, House of Anansi, 2022, pp. 67.

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