I was young when I first came to read Dakota. I was searching, and a friend thought it might help guide me.
Over the years, I’ve returned to this classic memoir about finding yourself not where you expected, but as you are.
Each time the book reveals new things.
Dakota, by Kathleen Norris is a book I thought I knew. I had read her other work namely, Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace. I thought Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, would be of the same ilk. It was close, but not entirely, to what I had expected. I was not disappointed, to be sure. Norris is an incredible writer, a writer who uses her poetic wisdom to make sense of the world, her geography, around her. Norris took me to a few places I did not think I would be going.
If there were writers/poets I most wanted to fashion myself, it would be Norris and Annie Dillard. What I like here is that as poets we tend to make connections with seemingly unrelated things. We do this, I believe, to heighten understanding. We seem to be saying; okay, if you do not understand how death is denied, then perhaps you (the reader) if we bring, say, plastic surgery, into the poem. While we do not automatically think of “death” and “plastic surgery,” as talking about the same thing, that in the poet’s world, they are, or rather, they can be. Both Norris and Dillard do these “connections,” well. Another thing they do well is incorporate faith. I do not mean to belabor the comparison of the two (that perhaps is for a longer critical work). However, I want to finish this by saying I am drawn to writers who do discuss faith in their work. Dillard, Norris and Frederick Bueckner (Alphabet of Grace) all do it for me. Andre Dubus does too, but probably not on the same level (see, “Charon’s Wharf,” Broken Vessels).
What struck me while reading Dakota, were two things, aside from the aforementioned poetic connections. I was enjoying how Norris made connections between the geography, the isolation there, and monastic life. The other thing that kept catching my attention was how Norris placed herself, her art, into the story. The book is non-fiction. It does at the base level present the story of Kathleen and her husband who in the early 80’s leave Manhattan to live on a family farm in Lemmon, South Dakota (where her great-grandparents homesteaded). That is enough for one book, perhaps, but a book that we have all read a million times. The fish out of the water scenario has been done to death. No, what Dakota, becomes is the story about her own spiritual transformation; the book is also about the place of the poet in community, and what constitutes a community. It is in the end a treatise on where we can take our art, and what it can do. It is very inspirational, to use perhaps an overused word. After reading this book, I wanted to take my own work to those to whom poetry is Greek. I wanted to teach it in small churches, in community centers, in conversations with farmers and farm-wives.
What is laudable about Norris’ job here is that she does not demand that a poet from Manhattan be heard in the plains of South Dakota. Instead, she picks the geography, the archaeology of the place, a part. She takes each piece and examines it, finds out why the people who live there react to her, or to any outsider, the way they do. She places herself in this story, but the story is not about her. For instance, her chapter called “The Holy Use of Gossip” examines how stories about people are circulated. “Allowing yourself to be a subject of gossip is one of the sacrifices you make, living in a small town.” Moreover, “at its deepest level, small-town gossip is about how we face matters of life and death…we also see how people heal themselves.” Norris tells us this in order that they may come to understand, as she did, how the people in Lemmon would come to spread rumors about a poet from Manhattan.
The greatest example of how Norris places herself in the story, without directly talking about herself, is her examination of the uses of truth on the plains. In the chapter, “Can You Tell the Truth in A Small Town?” the writer explores how past generations are often mythologized. The “hard-working papa,” and the “over-worked mother-who-never-complained,” templates are used to describe past generations. However, what happens if someone wants to explore the truth about place and its people as Norris does in Dakota.
In that chapter she writes: “What if such a family produced a writer? How would it be possible to write the story, dig it out from the depths in which it is entombed? If truth has become an outside authority to be resisted in order to keep the family myths intact, then the writer seeking truth would have to become an outsider, too. This is in fact, is what often happens.”
Norris beautifully describes her own situation, while examining the nuance of the place to which she finds herself.
Another way, I enjoyed Norris’ take on the plains was her intermittent use of prose poetry as if she were insisting it could reside there. For the most part, the prose poetry are called, “Weather Report.” Interestingly they talk about what is between geography and God. “We learn to read cloud banks coming from the west. We watch for sundogs and count rings around the moon.” This suggests something intangible, not grounded. “A snow angel’s wings are torn, caught in grass exposed by the sudden thaw,” reiterates the spirituality of the place and how the elements affect it. She uses prose poetry to tell the reader how the landscape is impacting her, “I want to be light, to cast off impediments, and push like a tulip through a muddy smear of snow. I want to take the rain to heart, let it move like possibility, the idea of change.”
The prose poetry scattered throughout the book allows the reader a glimpse of Norris moreso than the narrative found in the chapters. I am not entirely sure how or why it is that way, but can only say it does. It’s as if the center of gravity in the prose poetry pieces is Norris, but in the chapters of straight prose that center is off Norris and onto a wider canvas. Their counterpoint is interesting. As a reader, we can see how the plains impact those who reside on them; the prose poetry gives us Norris and how she has been influenced. My favorite are “God is In The Details,” followed by “Weather Report: October 8,” Together they incredibly embodies all elements of Dakota, into two consecutive prose poem.
“She said, `Well, you seed it in September. And it comes up right away. Then it dies back down and you hope for a good snow cover. If there’s been enough moisture it comes back up in April, around Easter.’”
This followed by a schoolgirl in one of Norris’ poetry classes who wrote a poem about snails. Norris highlights the girl’s poem: “When my third snail died, I said/I’m through with snails/But I didn’t mean it.” The two together are about death, resurrection and faith.
In choosing a bare bones existence, we are enriched, and can redefine success as an internal process rather than an outward display of wealth and power. ― Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography