On Being a Tomboy and Other Milestones: The Poetry of Renee Ruderman

Where Was She Going, a chapbook by Renne Ruderman, creates a world entangled with boundaries—her poetry delineates the borders of childhood and the loss of innocence, the impervious boundaries between boys and girls, the impassable boundaries between life and death, and the cultural boundaries that try to put us in our place and cause confusion. Ruderman’s narrative poetry serves as a navigation device through the borderlands and she helps the reader cross many life thresholds.

In the first part of the chapbook, Ruderman’s landscape is one of a young tomboy finding her place in the world. Tomboys are in between creatures, liminal creatures living outside the worlds of the masculine and feminine. Tomboys are unsatisfied with the feminine domain of life inside a house, but are never completed accepted by the boys. Tomboys are wanderlusts addicted to adventure and would rather climb trees than play dolls. Their existence causes confusion and annoyance and they live in an alien world of their own creation.

Tomboys make their mothers uneasy as explained in the poem “Diminished” when the young tomboy is playing in the field “where, I, bare-chested /played tag with the boys.” Her mother calls repeatedly to the girl to come home, but she was “part of the pack/ of racing boys panting/ tripping on stubble.” In this magical place “smelling/of thick threshing”, she was bare-chested, a detail she tells us for the second time, and “sweet with sweat.”

The tomboy is unfettered and free to travel and experience the pleasures of the natural world, but her mother sees potential danger and a disregard of decorum. Her mother repeatedly calls the girl and when the girl finally obeys, her mother wipes off her sweat and shames her: ”Put on your undershirt.” Gone is the sweat, the sun on her bare skin, and being part of a pack of wild racing boys. The mother tries to tame and domesticate her wild girl, but this task is not easily done.

In “No Trespassing”, the reader finds the tomboy in an uncut meadow about to embark on an adventure of playing cowboys and Indians venturing into the wildest places children gravitate to in their neighborhoods. Tomboys are most comfortable in this habitat. The poet declares her tomboy skill set:

“I was always the scout, nibble and carrot eating

vision so good I could spy a jay’s feather in the brook’s sludge.”


“The scrawny cowboy-hatted boys” sent her ahead of them and she outsmarts the boys as  “with bare feet I crushed the mossy groundcover/hopped granite boulders.” She finds herself in a primeval world apart undiscovered by the cowboys, and walks deeper into the woods and the unknown where the poet locates her standing


“in the brook, where none could follow my trail;

I could lose those the skinned-knee know-it-alls.

The knee-deep water would drown their messages.”


Here she has outwitted the masculine world and she shape shifts from a scout to a deserted explorer. She would not be called back to the world of boys. Instead, she has entered uncharted territory and plans on keeping her knowledge secret. “I’d return with no report/emerge from the No Trespassing signs.” In this secret place, she discovers “the blackened circles/of campfires left by hobos and men of the night.”

Rudeman leaves the tomboy in this dark, dangerous and unknown landscape, but we know because of her tenacity and adventurous spirit she will survive and thrive for her next adventure. She will emerge from the primeval world unwilling to share her new knowledge and continue to outwit the boys, a skill set tomboys carry with them their entire lives.

The narrative poems in her chapbook examine other milestones with the same unflinching eye. The reader finds themselves in unexpected places. We are pulled there by Ruderman’s collision of images expertly stitched together.


Renée Ruderman, an associate professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has two published books, Poems from the Rooms Below (Permanence Press, San Diego, CA, 1995) and Certain Losses, a chapbook (Main Street Rag, Charlotte, NC, 2004). She has won prizes for her poems, and some of them have appeared in The Bellingham Review, I-70 Review, Borderlands, and the Raleigh Review. Renée taught at Universität Siegen, Germany during a sabbatical in 2009, and she recently (2013) taught a poetry workshop at Palacky University in the Czech Republic.




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One Response to On Being a Tomboy and Other Milestones: The Poetry of Renee Ruderman

  1. Cynthia Kuhn says:

    “The reader finds themselves in unexpected places. We are pulled there by Ruderman’s collision of images expertly stitched together.” What a perfect description–that’s exactly how I felt when I read her books.


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