We know Kathleen Norris now by three books, all of them well received, all published in the last eight years. They are Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), The Cloister Walk (1996) and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998). There have also been three books of poems, small volumes, published at 10-year intervals beginning in 1971. But while the poetry has grown stronger and more satisfying, it is not primarily by this that the larger public knows her name. Rather, she has hit on a theme, a mother lode of sanity and wisdom that comes in large part from several decisions: to make her home in the hinterlands of South Dakota where her grandparents lived for many years, and—a practicing Presbyterian—to follow the rule of the Benedictines as an oblate at their monastery in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
In these three books we have been given Norris’s spiritual journey, and now come two more books: a collection of the poems she has written over the past 30 years and a coming-of-age memoir, The Virgin of Bennington. It is a book that takes up Norris’s undergraduate years at bohemian Bennington College between 1965 and 1969, followed by the nearly five years she spent in New York as a poet, making her livelihood (such as it was) working as an assistant for Elizabeth Kray at the American Academy of Poets.
Virgin is a fascinating book on many levels. One is for the world of Bennington she draws: drug-heavy, hallucinative, apocalyptic, a place where young men used to walk down the dorm halls demanding to know who wanted to go to bed with them (sadly, there always seemed to be takers). To survive in such a world she became aloof, withdrawn, a solitary, trying to fit in but on her own terms. Wanting to be known as "The Poet," she was instead dubbed "The Pope," a prescient-enough onomastic gesture in hindsight. The "Virgin of Bennington" remained in that state until her senior year, when she became the lover of one of her married professors, who introduced her to the New York art crowd and then dropped her, she wryly notes, for a younger model. There’s a photograph of her on the back cover, taken by the poet Gerard Malanga, on New Year’s Eve, 1971, up around Central Park. She’s sitting on the edge of a large public fountain, surmounted by an angel holding a sword. It seems to be the recording angel of history, and it looks down on the wistful figure of the young Norris, as if somehow protecting her. Someone was.
Another fascination about the book is the naming of names (though only, one notes, where this can be done with charity, the others—the narcissistic ones, the self-proclaimers, the special pleaders—being consigned to anonymity and erasure). During the time she spent in New York, she came up against Andy Warhol and his crowd at the Factory, met W. H. Auden, Stanley Kunitz, James Merrill, James Carroll, James Wright, Denise Levertov, James Tate and others. She draws a picture of New York, at once intimate and hazy, in the closing years of America’s involvement with Vietnam, giving us New York’s drug culture, its jazz scene, its sometimes outrageous lifestyles, its easy sex and killing isolation in a world surrounded by people. A young woman whose world had been Hawaii and South Dakota, she says she felt like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby trying to find her way in the dazzling but dangerous world of the East Coast. She did, but it was not to be her home.
But that was the early 1970’s, and now it is 30 years later, and it is the older Norris—now in her 50’s—looking back at her younger self with a certain amusement and forgiveness. What a mixture the young Norris seems to have been as she put on a certain New York sophistication like an ill-fitting coat, an odd, passive urbanity mixed inextricably with the innocence and vulnerability of those who grow up in the vast American Midwest, which means anything from Tenth Avenue to California. It’s refreshing too just how unwilling she was—and is—to judge others, which I take to be her Benedictine sanity of approach to the vagaries of youthful experimentation.
But this is only one-half the diptych that makes up her memoir. Some have called her book two books, really: a youthful memoir and a paean to the selfless labors of Betty Kray, who worked tirelessly for poetry for over 30 years in her efforts to find funding for poetry readings, the Poets-in-the-Schools program and ways to bring visiting poets together in New York. But that is exactly the point of the book, that it should consist of two portraits: the portrait of herself as a young, self-absorbed, sometimes depressed artist and the portrait of Betty Kray, a woman in her 50’s when Norris met her, like Norris now, a woman married but childless (again like Norris), who did the work behind the curtains so that others might shine, because the work was noble and worth doing. In short, this is a loving portrait of a woman very much like the Benedictine monks who labor in obscurity, joyfully living out their lives away from the cameras, away from the lassitudes of egoism.
New York may be home to other poets, but it was never going to be Norris’s home. That she found when she returned with her future husband to the ancestral home of her grandparents in Lemmon, S.D., (population 1,650) in 1974, expecting to stay a short time before moving on again. But the spirit of the land and its people entered her, and she has lived there ever since, summers and winters, with stays in Hawaii and at the monastery that has sustained her and given her a subject and a way to write about it. More, it has blessed her with an enviable wisdom, similar to that of another displaced New Yorker, Thomas Merton, found 30 years earlier at another monastery, this one Trappist, at Gethsemane in Kentucky.
To read through Norris’s new and selected poetry in Journey is to watch a flower blossom through the lens of a time-lapse machine. Moving from the accomplished but in-turned poetry of isolation of her first volume (Falling Off) to the later work is like pulling back the curtains to let the light and air stream in. The early poetry is curiously empty of people; the latter filled with the people of her world—family, neighbors, friends—all seen in a compassionate light, often with humor, always with insight. Here is a passage from the early work, from a poem called "Bean Song," with its youthful self-portrait as a bean:
The bean flower stands up
to see if it’s in the middle of a field,
or someone’s flower pot;
it is beautiful and bitter,
and dies after a while,
but the bean keeps singing to itself
a song about the stars,
and the cities, and the people
who live in sunlight.
No one hears it singing,
only a few ever learn the song.
And then there’s the later work, with its clarity, directness of address and surprising turns one associates with her friend, the poet James Wright. Consider, for example, these lines from the last of "Three Wisdom Poems," describing "her favorite woman in the world," who built her beloved husband a monument in the fifth century, a world caught between the death of the old gods and the emergence of Christianity. "Men had told her," Norris writes:
how the universe
would settle, this way
or that. How some would bur,
and others find eternal rest.
Look, she loved him and he died.
So, inscribing his tombstone
in bad Latin
while the great Empire crumbled
she reached out
with one impossible gesture,
and commended him to the mercy
of both Jesus Christ
and the Fates.
And that’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Love, and fidelity, and keeping the memory of the beloved, whether it be a husband or a landscape or a 1500-year-old tradition like monasticism alive in the heart. It is in reaching out to others in the various communities that have sustained her that she has come, paradoxically, to unlock herself and show us a world of sanity and light, where flowers blossom in the high deserts of the Dakotas as once, for the early monks, they blossomed in the fastnesses of other deserts. And deserts, like blossoms, it appears, can be found anywhere.