25th Trillium Award

Presenting Adder’s-tongues: A Choice of Norma West Linder’s Poems

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Norma West Linder and James Deahl (photo source: lambtonshield.com)

Sarnia poet, novelist and mentor Norma West Linder has been writing for over 40 years. Her latest book, Adder’s-tongues: A Choice of Norma West Linder’s Poems, 1969- 2011, was edited by James Deahl and recently published by Aeolus House. This moving collection will be launched in Sarnia at the summer Spoken Word/Books and Biscotti Cultural Event on Sunday, August 19. Visit our Events page for details.

Norma West Linder and James Deahl are integral members of Sarnia's literati. "We are so fortunate to have these two professional writers living in our community,” say Spoken Word co-hosts and local writers Debbie Okun Hill and Ryan Gibbs. “Linder has been part of Sarnia’s writing community for over 45 years and has been a mentor to so many emerging writers. Deahl, who recently moved to the area from Hamilton, has been part of the Canadian poetry scene for over 40 years and was a dear friend of such poetic icons as Al Purdy and Milton Acorn. As a co-founder of the publishing company Mekler & Deahl, he launched and built the writing careers of many new and established writers.”

Open Book is proud to publish James Deahl's introduction to Adder’s-tongues, along with this selection of Norma's affecting work.

Adder’s-tongues: A Choice of Norma West Linder’s Poems, 1969- 2011

Editor’s Introduction

published with permission from Aeolus House

Norma West Linder is best known as a writer of fiction. Her novels have been published in both Britain and Canada. Her short stories continue to be published internationally and have been included in more than a dozen anthologies. Ms. Linder is also widely known for her biography of Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon. Yet, we present her here as a poet.

Despite coming to poetry rather late in life (after she had turned 40), Ms. Linder is a poet of no small talent. She was “discovered” by Fred Cogswell in 1970, and her first collection, On the Side of the Angels, was published by Cogswell’s Fiddlehead Poetry Books a year later. I believe the present selection, which covers 42p years of her poetry, will establish that she must also be recognized as a poet as well as a writer of prose.

Her chief poetry mentors are Raymond Souster and Irving Layton. The Layton influence has faded over the decades, but the Souster influence remains strong. Indeed, I would argue that Ms. Linder is the foremost Sousterian poet writing today. Like Souster, she has developed a fine gift for writing about, or from the perspective of, other people. The “I” in her poetry quite often does not refer to the poet herself. Also like Souster, her poetry upon first reading may appear simple, but a second reading often yields more complex thoughts and emotions. Like all true poets, she avoids imitation, having developed her own voice during the early 1980s.

Thirty-five years ago, Étienne Boisjoli wrote that a noteworthy feature of Ms. Linder’s early work was its simplicity. This is not a private poetry, Boisjoli stated, nor is it at all mystifying. Rather, it speaks directly to its reader. Boisjoli goes on to say that this poetry is “Just plain stark nuts & bolts of the EXPERIENCE. Linder gets as close to the original stimulus as words can take her. This is why the poetry works.”

Twenty years later when commenting on Ms. Linder’s fully mature poetry included in Morning Child, Peggy Fletcher observed that “The marriage of craftsmanship and true sensitivity allows appreciation of the nuances of language. It is both joyful and sad . . . a true expression of human existence.”

Ms. Linder’s subsequent poetry was coloured and deepened by the lengthy death of her second husband from Alzheimer’s disease. This led directly to her thematic chapbook River of Lethe: A Journey Through Alzheimer’s.

In addition to its technical abilities and craftsmanship — praised by Étienne Boisjoli and Peggy Fletcher — I value this poetry for its empathy, compassion and poignant insight into the universal human condition with its measures of sorrow and pleasure. This places her within the tradition of poets like Souster, Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Milton Acorn and Miriam Waddington.

In editing this volume it is my hope that the quality and importance of her poetry will no longer be obscured by the acclaim her fiction has earned.

James Deahl, 2012

Three Poems from Adder’s-tongues

Summer Vacation Hat Trick

Back in the Fearless Forties
I met him in Parry Sound
He wore a brown fedora
I wore a pleated skirt
Sipping a root beer soda
I flirted shamelessly
He was a handsome twenty
I was on the brink
   of fourteen

My friends gave me a party
He came in with the crowd
and in a dim-lit corner
of the decorated room
we shared secret honeyed kisses
behind his brown felt hat
till he counted my birthday candles
and that was the end
   of that


(thinking of motherhood)
I recall my roommate
back in the early sixties
in St. Joseph’s Hospital

Exhausted by her seventh
Maria lay spread-eagled
on her bed
skin a translucent blue
stretched over sharp-edged bones

Visiting hour approached
she struggled to sit up
searched out her lipstick
and turned
dark-circled eyes my way

I sure hope God don’t
send me any more kids
I got too many now

She fell back on her pillow
red-painted mouth a wound
across her ashen face

On the third day
her husband brought her coat
and she rose again from the bed

Tales My Mother Told Me

When I hear talk
about the good old days
talk of a world
that’s changing
for the worse
I remember tales
my mother told me
tales of girls in trouble

One, a pretty redhead
couldn’t bear the shame
swallowed strychnine
died in agony
behind the family sofa

Her name was Dolly

Another drowned herself
Mother never forgot
the way her long blonde hair
fanned out upon the surface
of the local pond
a golden curtain
over silent water

Norma West Linder is a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, PEN and Writers in Transition, and she is past president of the Sarnia Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association. She is the author of 5 novels, 14 collections of poetry, numerous short stories, a biography of Pauline McGibbon and a memoir of Manitoulin Island, where she spent her childhood. A retired Lambton College English teacher, her poems have appeared in the latestissues of Möbius, an annual New York poetry magazine.

James Deahl was born in Pittsburgh in 1945, and grew up there, as well as in and around the Laurel Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains. He moved to Canada in 1970. He is the author of 21 literary titles, and is a translator. A cycle of his poems was the focus of a one-hour TV special, Under the Watchful Eye. In addition to his writing, he had taught creative writing and Canadian literature at the high school, college and university levels. In 2001, Deahl was presented with the Charles Olson Award for Achievements in Poetry.

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