Friday, August 11, 2006

Memoirs and Kathleen Norris: An Appreciation

Memoirs can often be disturbing. As a writing teacher, I have encountered students who make revealing personal disclosures in their essays. One of my supervisors when I first started teaching encouraged students to write about their personal pain; probably encountering those kinds of essays assisted her in mothering her students as they made the transition from expressive to referential writing. I now caution my students against writing about incest and rape; otherwise, I am open in terms of topics, even when the students describe abortions or drug use, for example. The students, of course, are not writing for me as their audience, but I still dislike having to encounter incest and rape in their essays. All I can do is encourage the student to seek professional help while grading the essay in terms of how well the student has fulfilled the assignment. When I taught prisoners at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the maximum security prison on Fort Leavenworth, I got one or two essays containing intimate descriptions of rough sex. That topic probably proved cathartic for the writer.

Published memoirs can be disturbing as well. William Kittredge goes into obsessive detail regarding his drinking in Hole in the Sky. David Ray gives a lot of attention to the sexual abuse he encountered as a young person in The Endless Search. A full understanding of the person requires this disclosure. As readers, we wouldn’t want these details to be kept out of the narrative. The redundant detail can prove either overwhelming or embarrassing at times, however.

Kathleen Norris shocked her audience in The Virgin of Bennington (2001). Having grown familiar with her work from reading The Cloister Walk (1996) and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998), her audience expected the same religious themes in subsequent books. The Virgin of Bennington, on the other hand, traces Kathleen Norris’ life from her undergraduate years to her apprenticeship with the Academy of American Poets, particularly her relationship with Betty Kray, and her decision to leave New York for South Dakota. Reviewers of The Virgin of Bennington tended to caution readers because of the frankness in which Norris describes her adulterous liaisons with a professor and her abundant drug use. The narrative places an equal amount of attention on Norris’ encounters with various poets, such as James Wright and Galway Kinnell, and on her own literary success. Most of all, the memoir describes the assistance that Norris received from Betty Kray; it’s this relationship with Betty Kray, combined with Norris’ fascination with poetry, that kept the narrative from becoming a strict confessional mixed with tears and recriminations.

Used copies of The Virgin of Bennington are listed at Amazon, starting at the price of one cent. Apparently, some of her readers couldn’t accept that change occurs in the course of one’s life. Those of us familiar with Norris’ poetry recognized that she has always embraced the full range of human experience. Long before Norris attracted an audience of those exploring their religious faith, she embraced physical passion in The Middle of the World, a collection of poems that U of Pittsburgh P released in 1981.

Notice the following poem taken from The Middle of the World. This poem also appears in Journey (2001), her collection of new and selected poems.

The Dancers

We are curious about one another’s bodies
But courtly now,
Assume the prescribed position:
Your hand on my back,
Our fingers meeting, holding in air.

We move where instinct moves us
On the stage-lit dance floor,
The strong farmer’s son
And preacher’s daughter
Holding each other gingerly,
Keeping distance, like possibility,
Between us. I would like to feel your blond head

Between my legs, hear animals breathe
In the fields around us
As we get up shivering
And the moon steps down, still hungry,
In the pale grass.

Kathleen Norris.
The Middle of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981. 47.

Not a religious person, only having entered a church for weddings and funerals since 1969, I still followed Norris’s career as she explored her spiritual interests. An appreciation of Donne doesn’t end with his poems of married love, e.g., “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “The Relic”; a full appreciation of his work includes “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” and the “Holy Sonnets” as well as “The Flea” and “The Good-Morrow.” Similarly, one cannot turn away from Norris’ explorations in her poetry and prose. I suspect that she will continue to reveal the truth of her experience and will find those allusions that allow her to articulate those truths.

Even if Norris were to lose all of those readers who have taken an interest in her work since The Cloister Walk, she will remain as a writer of the Great Plains. She proves an inspiration for students who think that this region has nothing of value because it lacks a beach or mountains. Occasionally, the relative absence of people and the extreme fluctuations in weather cause us to explore an interior world. Norris has dealt with the Great Plains in her own unique way.