In her acclaimed prose work Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), Norris writes that asceticism is
not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society—alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels—that aim to make us forget.
In her collection of poems, Little Girls in Church, Norris brings to vibrant life the kernels of spiritual insight planted in Dakota. In a sense, reading Little Girls in Church is an act of harvesting the fruits of such a beautiful and spiritually necessary way of looking at life. The book is a most eloquent celebration of the bounty of “less is more” philosophy, a perspective that contemporary poetry desperately needs to make it the pioneer of ethical and spiritual values that it should be.
Most readers and writers of contemporary poetry are concerned with exploring or deploring issues of aestheticism rather than asceticism. Norris, however, writes not only about the wonder of writing; moving beyond such self-reflexive perils, she explores the miraculous dynamic of polarity-embracing existence, using the medium of words to explore greater mysteries than language itself. Her work is beautiful and courageous because she dares to say that there is something beyond language, and she uses language to adore the mystery of being.
Certainly a number of poems in the collection could be fit into broad categories such as “poem about another writer,” “poem for or to another writer or literary figure,” or “poem about words”; “Thinking About Louise Bogan,” “All Saints All Souls,” and “The Word Itself: A Love Poem” are all fitting examples. These poems do not, however, form the apex of Norris’ poetic voice, and so it is important to focus on the ones that seem to show her brilliance as a poet in the role of visionary.
Perhaps the distinction between the garden-variety definitions of aestheticism and asceticism is more subtle than it sounds. Otherwise, how could the stereotype of the starving artist exist? Norris does acknowledge herself as a writer immersed in the world of language and its concerns. Yet unlike the usual aesthetic pattern of obsession, such immersion is not the end in itself; rather it is devotion to the “radical way of knowing” that makes many of the poems in this collection extraordinary in their visionary scope. While Norris is fully conscious that her instrument of knowing is writing, she strives to demonstrate how the mystery of life is more than that. One does not have to have a polemical stance concerning the relationship between beauty and self-denial (which Norris rejects as the core of asceticism anyway). Instead, it is redefined as acceptance of where we are, with all its limitations, and the power such acceptance has to enhance us by reaching toward what is eternal and what connects us all.
Monastic life in particular and Christian theology in general have influenced Norris and her vision considerably. Despite her reading in these areas and her interactions and connections with monasticism, she wisely avoids writing as a proselytizing insider. In this sense too her vision is ascetic—it explores the “root” or radical notion of human existence as a kind of “desert” or “Great Plains” experience which allows her (and, by corollary, her readers) to champion the human need and vulnerability in others from a place outside their belief systems or needs or loves. She embraces the tradition of the benevolent observer that William Wordsworth launched in order to show that this “radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are” is not a matter of stopping with the comfort of identification or companionship but an act of spiritual courage, not unlike the surrender of prayer.
Evidence of the generosity of this view is seen in poems such as “Young Lovers with Pizza.” In this poem, the speaker is the imaginary observer of a young college-age couple entwined in an embrace amid the clothes they have shed and the take-out pizza that has been ordered. Struggling to untangle themselves enough to answer the telephone, they laugh, aware that the person on the other end of the line “doesn’t know a thing.” Instead of identifying with their youth, the speaker deliberately sets herself outside it by confessing outright in the second stanza,
I envy you,
. . . that first touch,...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)