[sixties-l] That 70's Show: Kathleen Norris..

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed May 30 2001 - 18:42:49 EDT

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                  May 27, 2001

                    That 70's Show

                         Kathleen Norris remembers a New York of sex,
                         drugs and poetry readings.

                           By ERICA GOODE

                   THE VIRGIN OF BENNINGTON
                   By Kathleen Norris.
                   256 pp. New York: Riverhead Books. $24.95.

                 Kathleen Norris was an unlikely Bennington girl.
                 A Midwesterner who had spent her adolescence in
                 Hawaii, she arrived in Vermont for freshman
                 orientation at the apex of the 1960's, knowing a
                 lot about church choirs and libraries but little
                 of sex and illicit drugs. Bookish and shy, she
                 was unprepared for a place where students slept
                 with their professors, viewed politics as a
                 choice between Lenin and Trotsky and cultivated
                 neurosis so fiercely that a professor at the
                 University of Michigan once taught a course on
                 abnormal psychology using mostly Bennington
                 stories as examples.

                 For a while, Norris retreated into herself. ''I
                 felt that I had died, and considered other people
                 dense for not recognizing this, and for treating
                 me as if I was still alive,'' she writes in ''The
                 Virgin of Bennington.'' The title of her book was
                 a nickname bestowed by her more worldly-wise
                 classmates. (They also called her ''Norris the

                 But immersion more often than not leads to
                 influence. And by her senior year Norris had
                 become close friends with, among others, the
                 feminist Andrea Dworkin and begun writing poetry
                 in earnest, taking advantage of the college's
                 very real devotion to serious art. She also
                 embarked on her own affair with a professor.
                 Though it ended predictably when he dumped her
                 for a younger student, through him she found a
                 job after graduation, working on the Upper East
                 Side of Manhattan for the Academy of American
                 Poets and its forceful executive director,
                 Elizabeth Kray.

                 The story of a naive Midwestern girl colliding
                 with Bennington's hothouse variant of East Coast
                 sophistication (in her freshman literature
                 course, Norris writes, she advised a
                 speed-popping fellow student that it was perhaps
                 not a good idea to take so much aspirin) is
                 fertile ground for a memoir, particularly when
                 addressed in the lucid, often startling prose
                 that made three of Norris's earlier books,
                 ''Dakota,'' ''Amazing Grace'' and ''The Cloister
                 Walk,'' nonfiction best sellers. But Bennington
                 is just a starting point for Norris. She wishes
                 to approach larger questions of how a writer
                 finds her voice, for example, or how a spiritual
                 ''virgin'' sorts illusion from authenticity,
                 growth from surrender.

                 Indeed, Bennington is the setting for only the
                 first chapter of this book. It goes on, in
                 somewhat haphazard fashion, to chronicle Norris's
                 several-year sojourn in New York City, the poetry
                 scene of the early 1970's and, most centrally,
                 the author's admiration for Betty Kray. In her
                 role as the academy's ambassador, Kray nurtured a
                 generation of poets while working tirelessly to
                 bring poetry to a wider audience. Norris was
                 among those who benefited from Kray's firm and
                 unstinting tutelage. She eventually met her
                 future husband and decided to leave New York,
                 finding her voice, her roots and a path for her
                 religious yearnings in South Dakota.

                 Like ''The Cloister Walk,'' which focused on
                 Norris's experiences at a Benedictine monastery
                 in Minnesota, ''The Virgin of Bennington'' is
                 both intimate and detached, written from the
                 perspective of the guest at the party who mingles
                 and, at the same time, observes coolly from a
                 spot next to the punch bowl. Its organization
                 overturns many conventional notions of how
                 nonfiction should proceed. Discussions of
                 theology pop up in the midst of recitations of
                 academy programs. Stanzas of poetry appear
                 unexpectedly in sections of biography.

                 Halfway through ''The Virgin of Bennington,'' an
                 episode begins with a transvestite offering
                 Norris makeup tips in the bathroom during a
                 drug-filled party in Hell's Kitchen. But within a
                 paragraph it becomes a meditation on Philo of
                 Alexandria, an early Jewish philosopher. (''Be
                 kind,'' he advised, ''for everyone you meet is
                 fighting a great battle.'')

                 This patchwork quality is not always welcome.
                 Vivid narrative scenes -- all-night carousing
                 with the Andy Warhol crowd, for example, or a
                 nightmarish mescaline trip that Norris
                 experienced -- give way to tedious passages
                 encumbered by detail, and infused with language
                 about as compelling as that of a promotional
                 brochure. (''An innovator by nature, Betty was
                 never happy with maintaining the status quo.'')

                 And ultimately, a point of view that succeeded in
                 her book about the lives of monks only struggles
                 to succeed when transposed to the lives of poets.
                 In ''The Cloister Walk,'' the reader encountered
                 faith through the eyes of an inquisitive doubter
                 and was led to understand it better. But here,
                 Norris is tripped up by her own attachments. Her
                 desire to pay homage to Kray, who died of cancer
                 in 1987, confounds the effort to describe a
                 spiritual search.

                 For those who are familiar with the names, places
                 and events that Norris describes, or who have an
                 abiding interest in how poetry in the United
                 States moved from Robert Frost to Denise
                 Levertov, ''The Virgin of Bennington'' is
                 worthwhile reading. But others may find it a book
                 that, though filled with small and sparkling
                 epiphanies, cannot decide, finally, what it wants
                 to be.

                 Erica Goode writes about human behavior for The

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