Winner of the 2006 Jewish Book Award for Poetry
In this collection of poetry, acclaimed poet and writer Renee Norman captures the sensuous and surreal, the serious and the serene, the simple truths about life, love, self and family.
A luminous depiction of women’s roles as daughter, mother and grandmother, this collection charts Renee Norman’s journey as poet and archivist. The prairie of Norman’s childhood has been redeveloped into glass canyons. Her patches of memory are like the “rebuilt” landscape, while her poems let in small shafts of life, revealing the true “lies” we tell ourselves and our loved ones intimate disclosures of familiar truths and banal deceptions. The poems are like tributaries which branch from a deep river from which we can glean the routes the poet has taken across previously unrecorded territory, her quest not only from place to place but a search for identity, and her role as witness to life.
– Anne Burke, Chair of the Feminist Caucus, League of Canadian Poets, and Editor of the Prairie Journal
Renee Norman, Ph.D., is an award-winning poet, a writer, and a teacher. She completed her doctorate at the University of British Columbia in 1999. Her dissertation, House of Mirrors: Performing Autobiograph(icall)y in Language/Education, focuses on women’s autobiographical writings, including her own, and on autobiography in language/literacy education, and was published as a book by Peter Lang Publishers, New York, in 2001. Renee’s poetry, stories, and articles have been published widely in many literary and academic journals, such as Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Prairie Journal, Freefall, and English Quarterly, as well as in anthologies and newspapers. She has received poetry and nonfiction prizes for her work. Renee is one of twelve Canadian woman poets whose poetry is featured in The Missing Line, published by Inanna Publications in 2004. Currently Renee teaches in a Fine Arts program in Vancouver School District. She lives in Coquitlam, BC, with her three daughters Sara, Rebecca, and Erin, and her husband Don.
I. This is How it Begins
Calgary Storms 15
Photos at the Calgary Zoo 17
Lunar Alignment 24
Dog Day 26
On the Horizon of Midnight 28
On Vacation 30
A Sting of Ocean 31
Repairing Damage 34
June Field Trip 37
For Sara at Twelve 39
Mother’s Madness 41
True Confessions 43
II. If I Call Myself
House of Mirrors 47
On the Tongue 49
The Truth Is 50
Samson and Delilah Revisited 51
I Hear of Another Man Who Leaves His Wife and Children for a Younger Woman 53
Dusting Off Willie Loman 54
Remember Lot’s Wife 55
This Is Dancing 56
This Is Madness 57
Six Secretaries in Search of a Poet 58
Woman Flees 61
M(other) of the Text 62
If I Call Myself 63
III. When Geese Fly
The Queen of Between 67
No Smoking 69
Cracked Pottery 70
Never Eat Smarties Before Bedtime 72
When Vacuums Fly 73
Out of Web Site 75
In the Bathroom Thou Shalt Eat Stones 77
New Westminster 79
Fiftieth Anniversary Waltz 84
Upon Learning of the Deaths 87
Earthquake at 9pm 88
When Angels Follow 89
In Benign Remembrance 90
How the Dead 92
When Geese Fly 94
IV. Giving Thanks
After Reading Sharon Butala’s
Perfection of the Morning 99
My Father’s Shoes 101
The Long-Handled Fork 102
Eagles Are Known for the Power of Flight and Vision 104
A Fork, A Slap, A Poem 105
The Stability of Stairs 107
Checking the Doors 109
My Father, Driving 111
BY WANDA HURREN
Renee Norman’s award winning collection of poems, True Confessions, is a celebration of words and women. Throughout this collection, the particular in everyday events (school field trips, cooking soup at the stove, checking the doors at night to make sure they are locked) mingles with the universal, in that Norman refuses to be silent regarding the place(s) of women in a patriarchal society.
True Confessions is divided into four sections, and each begins with a black and white family photograph. The sections are organized in a way that is almost chronological, but not quite; almost seasonal, but not quite, and definitely confessional. In the opening poem from the first section, we are drawn in to the not always suppressed tensions shared between a mother and daughter. Norman calls up that crazy ambiguous positioning of being a mother with daughters of her own, yet still and also, being the daughter in her mother’s house (even when Norman’s own daughters are present). The tensions that exist around these roles are called up: these summer visits home are/ like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Much of the tension seems to be located between an aging mother and daughter, and Norman writes more tenderness into the relationships with her young daughters. Yet there are moments of tenderness located in her lines about her relationship with her mother. When she discovers her mother at the stove with her shirt on inside out (migod, her shirt is on/ inside out), Norman tells us, i lift her shirt off her shoulders/ the way i undress my youngest child/ when her head is stuck/ my hands radiate/ tenderness and humour.
A major theme present in the poems from the second section, If I Call Myself, is that of women and their positioning in a patriarchal society. Norman calls on her experiences as mother, daughter, student, teacher, and above all woman, to highlight society’s gaze upon women, men’s privileged positioning, and how middle age plays into the mix. Norman rises up in her middle age, letting us know that she no longer sits with her feet folded under another table, waiting for a man to ask her to dance. Within the educational world where Norman has lived as a student and teacher for many years, she champions women who go against the grain, describing us as fleas in the fur of university departments/ we burrow in. Regarding the gendered inequities in the educational world, she writes of choruses of women/ chanting the mantra of men/ between school board walls.
Norman’s third section, When Geese Fly, sometimes performs a type of humorous interlude in the everyday, while time passes and families age. There is also a preoccupation with death and dieing in this section. Sad endings to stories and lives are recounted – this is a group of poems that looks back, while acknowledging that life goes on. Norman calls up the inevitability of death, poetically reminding us that people die while life goes on: they die in the middle of heat waves/ snowstorms/ …during the hour we set the clock back every fall.
In the final section, Giving Thanks, Norman tells the story of how one generation grows into the next. To emphasize the circle of life, Norman’s collection ends as it begins, with her mother cooking. Norman calls up the taste of mashed potatoes and crisp coleslaw, and she is gentle with her mother’s spirit, wondering who at her mother’s thanksgiving table will love/ my mother’s grace and endurance/ who will give thanks/ for that.
Academically, I would recommend this book as required reading for courses that examine gender and society, as well as for courses in women’s studies and creative writing. Personally, I would recommend True Confessions as required reading for women who can’t quite articulate the feelings/knowings that are accumulating regarding their experiences as women aging in a patriarchal society; Norman manages to articulate this with tact, poignancy, a healthy measure of anger, and true poetic craft. At one point Norman muses: i wonder how i will ever get used to moving/ in the world like a ghost/ people no longer glancing my way… In this first collection of poetry, which received the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award, Renee Norman is anything but ghostlike.
all weekend i dropped objects:
my husband’s $100 motorcycle helmet,
the lid to my mother-in-law’s
Brown Betty teapot,
the word that ought to have followed a preposition
i was reaching:
for a boot which caused the helmet
to skid and land with a THUD,
for the lid which simply slipped
out of my hands,
for immortality in ink
i watched it all fly
in slow motion
knowing the ending before it hit
like watching a film fully foreshadowed…
~ poem fragment from “Cracked Pottery,” by Renee Norman
By Diane Strandberg
The Tri-City News
Renee Norman is a busy mother and wife who commutes each day from Coquitlam to Vancouver to teach Grade 2s.
She’;s also a writer, whose poems have been gathered like laundry at the end of the week, into a book called True Confessions. And like anyone who doesn’t mind sharing her laundry, clean or otherwise, Norman has a confession to make.
She doesn’t have much time to write these days. She has a journal on the go. “You can write at the kitchen sink, if you have to.” And she saves two weeks of her summer break for writing.
What this talented woman doesn’t say is that life can sometimes get in the way of a woman’s words. This is too bad, because True Confessions, published by Inanna Publications and Education Inc., should not be Norman’s last word on the subject of womanhood, motherhood, childhood and all the other “hoods” of life.
But until Norman finds enough gaps in her schedule to flesh out another collection, the poetry-reading world will have to be satisfied with this rich collection, which traces her early beginnings growing up Jewish in Alberta, marrying and raising her daughters, delving into academia, and her journey to becoming an autobiographical writer and poet.
The journey began when her children were small. Norman was reading the autobiographical writings of other women for a master’s degree in language and literature education. It was during this exploration that Norman found her literary voice. “It was like a renaissance, I just enjoyed the experience so much.” Through reading other women’s autobiographies, Norman started to write about her own experiences. Narrative free verse was the form that allowed her freedom to talk about her own life.
“Reading books by and about women, it was opening up so many avenues.”
She mailed her poems to various publishers and more often then not they were sent back. “I have a shelf of rejections.” But eventually she found a literary home in various Canadian Studies and feminist journals. Her teachers encouraged her efforts, and the poems in True Confessions are the results of long labours towards her masters’ 6 and 7 gifted students to earn her PhD.
Norman is back to full-time teaching at a Fine Arts public school in Vancouver. Her own writing often takes a back seat to work and family life. But she still has this slim collection of poems, True Confessions to prove that she has a fine, clear poetry voice, and one which many are starting to take notice, including the Canadian Jewish Book Award which is expected to give her an award for poetry.
“You never get famous writing a book of poem,” she jokes. Still there are perks. She’s been invited to a few readings, including one to launch her own book next Friday, April 28 at the UBC Women’s Centre.
“There’s something about reading words you’ve written and getting an immediate response with it, there’s nothing like it,” she said.
As for the writing process, Norman calls it therapeutic, a chance to revisit moments in her life and put them into context. She calls her poems word pictures that she hopes other women will relate to.”You’re sort of doing the normal tasks, you get ideas, it seems ordinary but when you put it in poetic form it doesn’t seem so ordinary.”
The poems are intimate reflections of her own life, her relationships with her mother and her daughters, and although the experiences are Norman’s alone, they capture emotions and feelings that are elemental to women’s experience.
In a poem series, she carries on a conversation with her mom over an earlier poem that puts the older woman in a slightly unflattering light. (It’s a childhood memory of her mom slapping her for being slow to respond to the traditional four questions during a Passover Seder.) The follow up poems are in response to the first poem and conclude with a touching acknowledgment of her mother’s grace and endurance.
Norman recalls the poems as the moment where her need to be true to her writing and her relationships caused some conflict. “How much do I disclose,” she said she asked herself.
But in the end, she says, she had to be honest with herself and also true to the experience. “;What it does is take the moments of your life, and with those you are in relationship, and it honours them. It makes them significant. You really do honour those people and these events.”
~ True Confessions, published by Inanna Publications and Education Inc., will be available at the book launch, Friday, April 28 at the Women’s Centre at UBC.
Originally published in the Tri-City News, Wednesday April 19, 2006:25-26. Reprinted with permission.
Reviewed by Dorsía Smith Silva
Renee Norman’s poems in True Confessions cover a range of experience, from her complex relationship with her mother to the daily struggles of womanhood. Her poems are bound together by the various experiences of women as daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and poets. The end result is a fresh, appealing collection that balances love, nostalgia, humour, fear, and anger.
Norman opens the first section, “This is How It Begins,” with “Chop.” The poem describes a parenting role-reversal, in which the speaker affectionately helps her mother undress like she does her “youngest child / when her head is stuck.” The tone quickly changes in “Repairing Damage” when the daughter starts to “break / and fight back” with her mother for lecturing her “children / who should have known better.” Mother-daughter tension also resonates in “Mother’s Madness,” as the daughter once again disapproves of her mother’s commands to her children: “is this what you want them to remember? / stop running up and down the stairs / stop teasing your sister.” Norman returns to the intimate bond between mothers and daughters in “For Sara at Twelve.” The mother here tenderly recognizes her connection to her daughter: “the same knots tangle / your hair and mine / we both squint through / glasses spotted with breath.” These moving poems best illustrate the profound emotions shared by mothers and daughters.
In the second and third sections, “If I Call Myself” and “When Geese Fly,” Norman reflects upon the strength of women and the domestic responsibilities of mothers. With “On the Tongue,” she describes how women come together to share pain: “when Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora recites / a poem about her mother / when mature students read personal narratives aloud / one mother’s lost child is each particular sadness.” In the poem “In the Bathroom Thou Salt Eat Stones,” Zamora reappears as a symbol of brave women who fearlessly “eat stones” while others prefer the easy life of eating “bonbons.” Also of note are the poems “Woman Flees,” “The Queen of Between,” and the choreo-styled “Sex Secretaries in Search of a Poet” which examine the constant struggle of mothers working outside and inside the home to find time for themselves.
In the final section, “Giving Thanks,” Norman returns to her role as a daughter—to both mother and father—nd granddaughter. Although these poems evoke the speaker’s warmth for her family, they border on trite sentimentality. Lines such as “for weeks I have been talking to my father / through my mother / inserting care and concern in the phone lines / passing by the heart” (“My Father, Driving”) lack the emotional poignancy found in some of the poems in the earlier sections. Nonetheless, Norman’s collection is a pleasure to read and paints a wide landscape of the lives of women.
Published in the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering 9 (1) (Spring/Summer 2007). Reprinted with permission.