Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I am immersing myself in Annie Dillard. It's like swimming in a language already made familiar by love of the word, by love of the world, by love. Every day I find more reflections. Here are some:

The writer studies literature, not the world. ...He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.
The writer knows his field-what has been done, what could be done, the limits- the way a tennis player know the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?
The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature...The art must enter the body, too. A painter can not use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paints are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit paint.
You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents. Klee called this insight, quite rightly, "an altogether revolutionary new discovery."...'
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?"
"Well," the writer said, "I don't know....Do you like sentences?"
The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences. If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of paint."
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?
...What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking...

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then--and only then--it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way...

One line of a poem, the poet said---only one line, but thank God for that one line--drops from the ceiling...It is like something you memorized once and forgot. Now it comes back and rips away your breath.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Magic Reading

Winter's hibernation brings with it the opportunity to read. Serendipity has brought me this winter to the incomparable Annie Dillard. I started with Teaching a Stone to Talk, which fell into my hands at a local second-hand bookstore. I am a believer in these kinds of signs: an impulse stop, and while I couldn't find the poets I was looking for (Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens), there was Annie, waiting. I read, and fell in love. So I ordered from Amazon...and today, two of her books arrived. I could have kissed the mailman.

I am deep into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Next will be The Writing Life. I wish I could just loll beside the fireplace, drink tea with honey, and read Annie. Wait! I can. Well, almost. I have one class left before we have reading week at the university, so must venture out into the unseasonable cold in order to teach. Until then, I am working on my own books but also allowing myself to curl up with Dillard, and in the spirit of sharing, I will offer you some of her lines.

It's about spirit: I have come to believe that perhaps we are not as fearful of showing our spirit-life, in writing, as post-modernism had led me to believe. I can't be quite as cynical as I thought I was supposed to be, and in fact, this week a letter came from Oberon Press in which some very interesting critique was offered of my own work. I was told that my "collection of poems is literate and intelligent." This was a fine opening line, and the writer went on to let me know the elements which I need to work on. The gist of it was that I was sacrificing some things for the sake of "experimenting with words and structures." However, he said, "What I do like most about your work, though, is the vision that seems to be inherent in the words; the scope and depth of what you see is manifest and impressive." I can live with rejections like that; the writer gave me some good advice and suggested I submit elsewhere, since they are now almost not publishing poems. I found it a very helpful critique, however, because it seemed to me that it was correct: I have been sacrificing substance for expediency. I have lost my true voice in experimentation, and I think it is time to revisit my heart, not in some solipsistic fashion but to remember who I am, and my spiritual core, and allow this to be the tone animating my work.

In order to do this, I have to "fill up" with spirit again, and I can't imagine a better teacher than the writing of Annie Dillard. Her work is, in a word, numinous. I wrote three response poems to her, a couple of weeks ago, and read them at a poetry event to a receptive crowd. I like them. I like their form and flow, and I have sent them out to see if others like them too. But I think they will mark the core of a new direction, for me. At the same time, I am working again on myth; Karen Armstrong's short work, The History of Myth, also fell into my hands, and I feel like I am being immersed in the pellucid warmth of history, the return to the present, and hopefulness, all of which are very powerful as I wait out the cold.

Here is Annie. She starts by citing the Koran, when "Allah asks, 'The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?' It's a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction?" She continues, cites Pascal coining the idea of God as Deus Absconditus, and asks, "Is this what happened?" Later in the same paragraph she says, "It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly its hem."

This passage launches me into a meditation, a recognition of the ideas behind Baha'u'llah's mystical work, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys (in which He draws on Persian mystic lore and poets, including Rumi and Hafiz), and we wander the valleys of search, giving ourselves up through love and knowledge ultimately to the seventh valley, the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness. A gift, a paradox. So much of Annie Dillard's work recognizes and explores the paradoxes of creation. Oh, oh!

And so much of her work is grounded in the animating principle of the infusion of beauty into the living world. Beauty, beauty. She says, "...that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there." Here is an invitation to presence, to the Presence, to the acknowledgment of our deep need to swim in the ineffable. It is no surprise to me to find her swimming in light.

I know she understands these mysteries, at a level beyond "understanding", when she says, "But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut."

Yes, yes. I learned, the other day, that when a Baha'i goes on pilgrimage (as I will with my family this coming summer), the first time you enter the holy buildings, it is without a camera. You are free to go back afterwards and take pictures to your heart's content, but in the first moments of communion, you rely on the present-ness, the being-ness of the moment of intimacy. Spirit, walking in the world.

Yet you can't just make it happen, and Annie writes to this, as well. "But I can't go out and try to see this way," she says, speaking of the second way. "I'll fail, I'll go mad."

Indeed. I know. She adds, "All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of the saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world's spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. 'Launch into the deep,' says Jacques Ellul, 'and you shall see.'"

There is more, much more, of what one can call, in a somewhat facile manner, meditation. It is tempting to share every morsel, but you can always buy and read the book. She says, "The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price....But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise." She says, "Litanies hum in my ears; my tongue flaps in my mouth Ailinon, alleluia! I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff."

This is me, sailing, flying, immersing myself in water, in words, in the Word. This is me praying, shimmering alleluia. This is me reading Annie Dillard, a woman who writes of trees, "The trees especially seem to bespeak a generosity of spirit. I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany. We know nothing for certain, but we seem to see that the world turns upon growing, grows towards growing, and growing green and clean."

This is me waiting for planting, waiting to sink to my calcified knees in the greening of spring, praying, almost in bloom. This is me, hoping for Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

An Annie posting

Every so often the right book falls into your hands at the right time, and you immerse yourself in words of beauty. This week, my gift was to find and read Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. So here, I give you a gift, of some lovely lines from Annie:

We are down here in time, where beauty grows.

I have some experience of these palo santo trees. They interest me as emblems of the muteness of the human stance in relation to all that is not human. I see us all as palo santo trees, holy sticks, together watching all that we watch, and growing in silence.

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of earth, and living things say very little to very few. Birds may crank out sweet gibberish and monkeys howl; horses neigh and pigs say, as you recall, oink oink. But so do cobbles rumble when a wave recedes, and thunders break the air in lightning storms. I call these noises silence. It could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water-and wherever there is stillness there is the still small voice, of God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song and dance, the show we drove from town.

Thank you, Annie.