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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Memoirists seem a self-centered, brazen gang: They find no subject as interesting as their private thoughts, all of which they deem worthy of publication. But Kathleen Norris is different. Her memoir, which follows the style of her award-winning spiritual meditations, is a marvel of modesty and delicate detail. In it, Norris describes her early career as a poet and arts administrator in New York City. She does not hide her own thoughts, but she manages to relay them in broader terms, focusing on poets' lives in general and her friends' lives in particular. It's a beguiling piece of writing, at once frank and secret.
Norris's story begins at Bennington, a small, artsy college that once opened the minds and legs of countless young co-eds. Norris describes her attempts to fit in, along with the ill-fated love affairs that swept her, after college, into a literary life in New York's Academy of American Poets. Throughout her memoir, Norris admits to her emotional peccadilloes but refuses to rake over them in reflective agony. When she records the erosion of her first romance—an affair with a married, older poet—she simply describes her boss Betty Kray's reaction: "'Your first love affair is over,' she commented...She said that affairs with older poets had been the bane of young women who worked at the Academy, and that my situation was far less disastrous than some." Like the precise and grounded Betty Kray, Norris eschews wallowing. She focuses on the work that her experiences helped to create: her own poems and those of others at the Academy.
So, instead of sweaty self-pity, Norris offers us subtle anecdotes about poets and poetry of 1970s Manhattan. She finds some small anecdote about every writer around: W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, and Denise Levertov, to name a few. She also shares with us bits of poetry, either spoken or written, and helps us to understand how they grew. Here's Norris's account of her friend Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries: "I was absorbed in writing cerebral verse about angels, and Jim sought inspiration in drug-induced hallucinatory dreams and nods. We both believed enough in what Jim has called 'the poem within' to let it save us. And it led us back to the real world."
Norris's The Virgin of Bennington also leads back to the real world. It's a memoir for people who don't like memoirs: full of the outside world, of poetry, and of people.(Jesse Gale)