THE GIRL FROM CARDIGAN; Stories by Leslie Norris; Peregrine Smith; 164 pages; $15.95.THE HAWK'S EYE; 8 poems by Leslie Norris; Honeybrook Press; 16 pages; $12.
In John Updike's novel "The Poorhouse Fair," a character named Connor claims every human being is a "non-believer" in his heart.
Elizabeth smiles. She's convinced that deep inside, we're all believers.
I mention this because I think all writers - in their hearts - know that the tolerance, humanity and optimism Leslie Norris displays in his work is the way literature ought to be written.
Norris is the Poet in Residence at BYU; a Protestant boy from Wales who has fit in well at the Y. One indication is his output. Norris has been impressively prolific in Provo. These three books are fresh off the press and he has others in the wings.
To begin with, Leslie Norris is a compulsive storyteller. And he's a moral storyteller. "The Girl from Cardigan," for instance, not only teaches us how one should write, but how one should live.
As a fiction writer, Norris loves the particular. He loves specific place names and the names of people. And he loves a tight focus. It's not uncommon for Norris to use half a page to describe a shaving mug, the pattern on the seat of a stool or blackberries on the vine. But where mere minimalists try to write on levels - try to show how the commonplace has echoes on other planes - Norris shows us that small events can change the world. "True" minimalism, for Norris, means showing how an afternoon of gathering blackberries, a caning from a teacher, a conversation on a street corner or a morning shave can turn us into new people. In "Some Opposites of Good," a boy named Mark has one such epiphany:
He mourned not so much for his vanishing pain, not for the indignity of his beating, but because his safe world had collapsed about him. He wept because he had been shown a world without hope and without justice, a world in which the very words were without meaning.
This is a bitter pill. But Norris gives us his medicine with a pleasant sugar-coating, a combination of clever understatement, amusing exaggeration and buoyant, clipped diction.
Life and people both move and amuse Leslie Norris. For such reasons, his fiction both moves and amuses the reader.
In the poetry, readers will meet the same, true Norris voice - a voice James Dickey feels is one of the most authentic writing today. And, indeed, if you've ever heard Norris give a reading, you can't read his work without hearing the lilt and sway of his Welsh accent.
Frost felt that a sentence was a "sound upon which other sounds are hung." Norris, in his poems, subscribes to that. There is an underlying melody to his verse. Call it a hand-me-down from the great Welsh bards, from Dylan Thomas, but Leslie Norris - like all Welshmen - is a singer.
"The Hawk's Eye" is a very handsome, letter-press book of poems brought out by Donnell Hunter of Rexburg, Idaho. (Hunter will also be at BYU next year.) These eight poems also appear as the opening section of "Sequences," the Gibbs Smith publication.
As expected, the poems in both books have more tautness and resonance than the prose pieces. Readers with quick ears will hear echoes of centuries of British poetry here. Sometimes the words bump and tumble into each other like Hardy's blunt ruralisms (". . .That one / larky, long in the leg, red bearded / he will not come back.) Sometimes we get a taste of Keats' hand-on-the-heart rhapsody.
Norris has become such a professional, however, that it is seldom a question of "good" or "bad" verse. It becomes a question of taste. American readers, for instance, may sense that old British reserve here. More than once they'll find Tennyson's stiff-upper-lip poking at them.
But what readers in the American West will enjoy is the care and keeping Norris brings to the rustic and the rough-hewn. He polishes up the unpolished. This, for instance, from his poem "Christmas in Utah:"
In barns turned from the wind
twitch their laundered blankets.
Three Stellar Jays,
crests sharp as ice,
bejewel the pine tree.
The poem is classic Norris. Full of keenly noted, heartfelt observation that becomes, by the end of the poem, a poignant insight into human frailty.
If, like me, you read literature to get to know an author's inner-workings, Leslie Norris is a man well-worth getting to know.