A Matter of Inclusion by Chad Norman

Hope and Beauty in Dark Times

How do we create beauty in a world of pain and oppression? That, it seems is the poet’s great challenge in what seems to be a time of global violence and impending catastrophe, when the wealthy nations of the Global North are well-along a trajectory of spiritual, political and ethical decay. Where does a poet find beauty, that creative vocation when it seems distant and out of sight like Shelley’s “blithe spirit” known only from its disembodied song.

“The goal of this current project is to educate myself,” he writes, “I want to understand what it is like to find one’s home in Canada, whether it is for economic or political reasons, or having to flee violence.”

The Canadian poet Chad Norman has an answer in his recent volume A Matter of Inclusion. It isn’t the only possible answer, naturally, but as posited in Norman’s sometimes-spare, always direct verse, it seems a particularly promising one. In his introduction, the poet speaks of the “the changing face, and faces, of Canada.” And that is, itself, an expression of hope, for change speaks to the future, and to possibilities yet to be known and actualized.

“The goal of this current project is to educate myself,” he writes, “I want to understand what it is like to find one’s home in Canada, whether it is for economic or political reasons, or having to flee violence.” Those possibilities are at the heart of every line in this volume, whose very title speaks of a dynamic and, one presumes, an ever-continuing process of inclusion. Yet, Norman sells his project short; his goal reaches beyond Canada, to a global perspectivity; this is, of course, implicit in cultural change and the transformation of his home country’s face. It might even be worth noting that this book by this very-Canadian poet is published by a Zimbabwean press.

I have to stop myself here and come clean: I am no Canadian, nor am I a poet, nor an expert on poetry in any way. I have a college degree in English, I read a lot of poetry, and I know what I like, in that layman-literati sort of way. I like Norman’s poetry (there, I said it), and I detect what seems to be a distinctly Canadian tone in his poetic voice that resonates with what I know (and love) of his homeland. There is even some of that Canadian hectoring of America that rubs so many of us the wrong way, even if we really know that we deserve it.

In “Romerica,” Norman takes stock of a personified America, “the battered one” covered in bruises with “eyes blackened” by a history of violence and white supremacy that will not take account for itself. Yet Norman holds out hope for change, healing, and even some kind of redemption:

A country is not a victim…
wake up, please, Romerica,
find the embrace for all of
who you are, who will be
what you become when voters
have the say, healing of that oval room
comes, like leaves as they begin
to change their historic colours.

The three-dozen poems in A Matter of Inclusion form a carefully, and artfully curated narrative arc. They are mostly “political” in the broad sense of engaging with what we would recognize as social, cultural and, yes, political questions. Indeed, Norman writes in his introduction that “My poetry has always delved into those places where the personal and public intersect.” And that is a key to many of his lines. The point where the public intersects with the personal is the ethical; Norman isn’t pressing an agenda here, so mush as he is positioning himself as the moral witness, though never its agent arbiter. Confronting a racist friend in social media, where “friends” are plentiful, and friendships shallow in “The Precarious Admission,” for example, the poet reflects on their ensuing, telling silence, before ultimately acknowledging a kind of complicity in their racism:

That little chat box where we
or perhaps, just me, came to know
who we aren’t, what leads me
to now admit, resolutely myself,
“Yes, I once knew a racist.”

There is always a sense that Norman might have more to say, without ever really saying it. Perhaps this is a function of that legendary Canadian reserve; a sense that, for all the warmth and passion in these lines, Norman is still the kind of Canadian who maintains a respectful, unfailingly polite distance.

Many poets would no doubt bristle at being accused of good manners, but Norman himself observes in the introduction that his “poetry has always delved into those places where the personal and public intersect.” The personal is private self, the passions, fears, ecstasies: the unrestrained, unaccountable, and private. The public is the open, unmasked face that meets, and often greets the world; it is the self that is seen and shared.

The public Norman, the face that appears in these carefully-chosen, considered words, is conversely a man of righteous passion. It might be stretching the definition to call this “poetry of witness,” but these are poems by man who has witnessed much, and his world-weariness, while solicitous of victims, barely restrains his fury at the oppressor.

Occasionally, he misses the mark, and veers into didacticism. “I Speak,” while expressing the important idea that taking a stand and speaking out is a moral obligation, strikes such a tone. In its repetition and bald statements of personal commitment to speak for refugees, it hovers somewhere between a sermon and a lecture:

I speak
because I walk
because I walk on the same planet
now the new home your babies sleep in.

I speak
because I see
because I see through eyes
unfiltered by any blinded minds.

I speak
because I know
because I know there’s nothing naïve
about the handshake I long to perform,
I long to perform when the future provides
your seemingly settled trembling grasp.

There is something of heroic self-production in these lines that Norman probably did not intend. Alongside poems of witness, acknowledging personal complicity, and the exposure of the personal, private self, the poem seems dissonant. Yet, perhaps that is the point: to create a Brechtian moment where the poet, himself a protagonist in his art, exposes himself in the pitiless spotlight of bare language on the bare stage of stark language.

In these poems Norman is seeking inclusion in an atomized and chaotic world, and not just for the subaltern other who suffers at the hands of the oppressor. His meaning is much subtler a kind of undifferentiation that makes violence and hatred of the other not only impossible, but unthinkable. That is not the world of pain and oppression we inhabit, and which he documents so well, but it is the one that the poet can imagine.

In the concluding poem, “A Choice of Shirts,” Norman acknowledges departed friends and mentors, the memories of the people to whom he would give the shirt off his back, thanking them for “opening the path to live somehow as poet.” That path, it seems, leads to possibilities, and isn’t it in promise and hope where we can find some beauty?

This review was written by Max Friedland and originally appeared on the Typescript website.

Max Friedland is a New York-based writer and journalist.

Chad Norman lives beside the high tides of the Bay of Fundy, Truro, Nova Scotia. He has given talks and readings in Denmark, Sweden, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, America, and across Canada. His poems appear in publications around the world and have been translated into Danish, Albanian, Romanian, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Polish. His collections are Selected & New Poems ( Mosaic Press), and Squall: Poems In The Voice Of Mary Shelley, is out from Guernica Editions. And a new collection, Simona: A Celebration Of The S.P.C.A. has been released late 2020 with Cyberwit.Net.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Mwanaka Media and Publishing (May 12 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 102 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1779213344
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1779213341