[(review date 13 August 2001) In the following review, Mariani praises The Virgin of Bennington and Journey: New and Selected Poems as worthwhile contributions to Norris's oeuvre.]
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 [Journey: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999] 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 To survive in such a world she became aloof, withdrawn, a solitary, trying to fit in but on her own terms.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...