Kathleen Norris Essay - Critical Essays


As a poet, Kathleen Norris is full of contrasts. She is a somewhat reluctant, even doubting believer in God, yet she fiercely seeks to express in her words the mysterious ways in which the divine is manifested in human existence with glimpses of grace and pain. She is a precise witness to the details and minutiae of daily life, and her poetry reflects this sense-filled focus. Her poems can also transport readers into the deepest recesses of the human heart, with profound and unexpected observations. She is immersed in life: as a wife and later widow, a granddaughter to a loved grandmother, and a faithful daughter to an aging mother. As a writer, she often steps back, analyzes her place in the world, and stands above day-to-day life, whether pondering existence on the lonely plains of South Dakota or retreating from the world as a Benedictine oblate. She is and has always been a daughter of the church: committed, generous, and serving; however, she often sharply critiques institutional dogma, calling it mythical and fantastic.

How I Came to Drink My Grandmother’s Piano

How I Came to Drink My Grandmother’s Piano is Norris’s paean to daily life and human encounters, to small details and tasks, and to memory. The poems are at once intimate and tiny, yet also expansive, sweeping the reader up and into questions of immortality, heaven, and death. The settings for the poems come from Norris’s memories of life on the plains, of school as a child, of travelogues, and of friendships. The title poem begins with a macro observation of a human life: “It has to do with giving/ and with letting go/ and how the earth rotates/ on its axis to make an oblate spheroid.” It then describes a memory of that giving, “. . . a piano/ in my grandmother’s house,” and a snowbound visit with a friend who serves dandelion wine in a fine crystal glass. This brings the speaker of the poem back to that piano and an awareness of its preciousness as she recalls, “I began to hear that piano.” In this poem, Norris pulls together disparate elements, linking the universal (giving), the personal (family), and present time (a shared glass of wine).

This attention to connections is fully realized in “The Presbyterian Women Serve Coffee at the Home.” A group of young women converse over coffee and express their own fears of death, dying, and growing old while they make judgments about the elderly women they seek to serve.

“I’m so afraid,” one says“of growing old.”“Not of...

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