Playing with Bird Bones In A Room With No View: A Journey Through Selected Works of Annie Dillard.
Dedicated to the memory of Max Richards. Friend and poet mentor.
Narrator: Annie Dillard: ponderer of life, astute observer of nature. Her prose constantly calls us to position and reposition ourselves in response to her ideas and those of other quoted essayists, poets, philosophers, scientists, rabbis, anthropologists……. Statement of fact and interpretative meaning often go hand in hand. Sometimes it feels as if we, the reader, fall through her prose. Sometimes, it’s like journeying through dense bushland. Her voice is bold; she makes plain statements but seems to withdraw just as quickly, to let silence and gaps speak as eloquently as any well-formed phrase spiced with artless aside. She is a writer slippery as an eel who leads the reader down into caverns of ideas and questions: about life, suffering, God, existence. She challenges us and plays with us. But there is a tender quality to her prose, a kindness even in throes of her tearing passions, or barking at God, or sudden unexpected shift of reasoning. She always has us the reader in hand; not tightly, but as invitation, utilising her sharp wit and craft, humour to full effect. A wily weaver of phrases; her writing is soaked with humanity.
American Childhood: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a house full of comedians, reading books. Possibly because Father had loaded his boat one day and gone down the Ohio River, I confused leaving with living, and vowed that when I got my freedom I would do both.
Narrator: American Childhood is Annie Dillard’s autobiography and here she consciously constructs a portrait of her early life and her growing sense of selfhood in the world. She is the eldest of three girls: Amy, second. Dillard tells us Amy ‘was a looker’ and that Annie had ‘made several attempts to snuff baby Amy in her cradle’.
American Childhood: Mother had repeatedly discovered me pouring glasses of water carefully into her face.
Narrator: But Molly, the youngest, as a baby was different.
American Childhood: I liked everything about her - the strong purity of her cheerfulness, bewilderment, outrage; her big dumb baldness, pointy fingers, little teeth, the works.
Narrator: However, it’s adolescence that tells us most about Annie Dillard’s emerging self in the world.
American Childhood: I was what they called a live wire.
Narrator: Adolescence is her first great awakening. All sorts of dynamic emotions were bubbling up inside her. Anger she describes then as feeling…..
American Childhood: ….myself coiled and longing to kill someone or bomb something big…..
Narrator: So too, aspects of life and other people became apparent.
American Childhood: ……..Sometimes in class I couldn’t stop laughing; things were too funny to be borne. It began then my surprise that no one else saw what was so funny.
Narrator: As a teenager Dillard read Rimbaud, the French symbolists, British War Poets, Lucretius, Hardy, Updike, Emerson……
American Childhood: I read with the pure exhilarating greed of sixteen, seventeen year olds; I felt I was exhuming lost continents and plundering their stores.
Narrator: She discovered passion.
American Childhood: I loved my boyfriend so tenderly, I thought I must transmogrify into vapour. It would take spectroscopic analysis to locate my molecules into thin air. No possibly way of holding him was close enough. Nothing could cure this bad case of gentleness except, perhaps, violence: maybe if he swung me by the legs and split my skull on a tree? Would that ease this insane wish to kiss too much his eyelids outer corners and his temples, as if I could love up his brain.
Narrator: During these years, her energy and her questioning broke many social boundaries: she wrote a ‘fierce’ letter to her minister and quit the church; she was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes; she played her father’s snare drum so hard ‘on a particularly piercing rock-n-roll down beat’ that she broke straight through it. Taking up an offer to join a drag race with some boys she hardly knew and in the process breaking both her knees, she was sent to juvenile court - her parents were horrified to read an account of the incident in a newspaper. But it was during this period too, Dillard came to realise that adolescence is a time when although your consciousness is being opened, other unanticipated realities hinder your spirit.
American Childhood: For as long as I could remember I had been transparent to myself, unselfconscious, learning, doing most of every day. Now I was in my own way; I myself was a dark object I could not ignore. I couldn’t remember how to forget myself….I was a boulder blocking my own path……Must I then lose the world forever that I had so loved? Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?
Narrator: Well, the world that she had so loved wasn’t lost. What she illustrates for us in her subsequent literary career is that life is a series of awakenings. To be an ardent lover of life actually involves an ongoing process of questioning, wondering, suffering, knowing the suffering world. The boulder of herself that blocked her own path actually became the very place for her own passionate consciousness to discover new paths. ‘We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught, to wake up’ she says in Total Eclipse. And as her own adolescent consciousness awoke, she began that lifelong recognition that we are all forever bonded to this particular present moment; to our present circumstances.
American Childhood: I am or seem to be on a road walking.
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos: Being here is being here on the rocks.
Holy the Firm: I seem to be on a road, standing still.
Narrator: It’s from trust in this place where she ‘seems to be’ that she ‘seems’ to sense the vibrations below the surface of the planet; vibrations which are in touch with what she calls in Holy the Firm, the Absolute at base. God.
A familiar phrase in mystical writings (which here is the context I am most interested in concerning the writings of Annie Dillard) is that if God were to be symbolised as a circle, then God’s centre is nowhere and circumference is everywhere. It’s a phrase that Lawrence Freeman, Benedictine monk and Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, used in his series of talks ‘Return to the Centre’ at a silent retreat he gave in Italy in 2010. The circumference of my own textual discussion will limit itself to only some of Dillard’s essays and extended reflective writing (not her fiction): Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, For the Time Being and Holy the Firm, Expedition to the Pole, Seeing, Galapagos, Lenses and Field of Silence. Several of these works appear in the volume titled after the story, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and either in full or edited in The Annie Dillard Reader and her latest publication, Abundance. This is my circumference, but what of a centre in Dillard’s writing?
In the first of his retreat papers, Lawrence Freeman explained that the word ‘centre’ in physics means the ‘centre of mass’ which is the mean location of all the mass in the system. Thus, your ‘centre of mass’ is where all the mass measured on the scales in the bathroom is located; a rigid body has a fixed centre. However, because we are in constant change, (like a loose distribution of masses, the solar system or even, for that matter the church) the centre of mass for these kinds of bodies is a point in space. This means in a dynamic, moving body the centre of mass does not have to be identified with a particular thing. So too, outside physics, the centre can have a geographical location and an inward apprehension; it is ‘out there’ in the world and ‘in here’ in your being. The word ‘centre’ itself comes from the Latin word ‘centrum’ referring to the fixed point of the two points of the compass. Behind that is the Greek word, ‘kentron’ meaning a sharp point, the sting of a wasp, related to the Greek word, ‘kentein’ to stitch, related to ‘kent’ to prick something. Thus, the word ‘centre’ has idea of precision, stability, sharpness, fixity in some way and also is dynamic and open and moving. So a centre: 1. fixed, yet moving, and 2. in the world, and in yourself.
Dillard is a shape shifter of prose; each of these works seem to move the reader through bundles of images and metaphors, themes constantly bob up to disappear again and emerge pages later, or in other works. Passages seem to cross space and time. The reader remembers impressions, passages out of context or locates them in various forms in different essays over different periods of time. But there’s always some sense, albeit elusive, that something is holding all this together. There is a ‘kentron’ in her body of work. And intuitively for me, this fixed point of the compass lies somewhere outside the text.
So where is this centre point of gravity in Dillard’s writing? One hint is that in all these essays and extended reflections Annie Dillard chooses to use the voice of the first person. This first person is a consciously crafted Dillard persona. And when you hear the voice of this persona across her various works you begin to sense this deeper place from where Dillard is speaking. This is why I have decided to present this paper this afternoon in the form of a play or a pageant. To understand a little of that deeper place where Dillard is coming from, it helps to hear this voice of her persona, her carefully crafted ‘I’, across a number of these works. Each character in this pageant is the title of one of her essays or books.
In Holy the Firm, Dillard quotes Psalm 24: ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his Holy Place?’ In these two questions I trace a hint of ‘kentron’ pushing into the text. Dillard herself is taking on this task to ascend the holy hill, stand before God, knowing that ‘those who have clean hands and pure hearts’ which the psalmist calls for, is actually really a call for every single one of us, blundering and awkward and impure, to orient ourselves toward this sacred ground. She emphasises: ‘There is no-one but us’. She sees herself to be a traveller toward and a witness of a God who is personally involved in creation and with His people. This is the Christian God, the New Testament God, who is increasingly seen to be for her of infinite depth and breadth, of ultimate mystery. This is the God of the Church, in all its beauty, its flawed notations, the God of all people even in, especially in, our human absurdities. This is the God of Love. And because of that strong, deep apprehension of the action of Love which I hear again and again in her works, I would like (as Narrator) to try and help us in a small way understand the writings of Annie Dillard as those being of a Lover.
One of Dillard’s own great loves is the ‘broadax.’ Use of this tool, this large axe with a broad blade, is not just for hewing timber or as a weapon, but can actually inform your determination to become a writer. In Holy the Firm, Dillard puts a question to students in her writing class.
Holy the Firm: Which of you want to give your lives and be writers?
Narrator: Her question is immediately linked in with her own inward sensations…
Holy the Firm: I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me.
Narrator: … and then, with a further bracketed aside, leaving this question still breathlessly hanging, she questions herself:
Holy the Firm: (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the colour of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?)’.
Narrator: And only then does she give us the students’ response.
Holy the Firm: All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I try to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax ….they had no idea what I was saying….they thought I was raving again. It is just as well.
Narrator: But in The Writing Life she is quite emphatic with the reader, (after all, we must not think she is ‘raving mad’); she tells us that when you write, you must …
The Writing Life: … aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood, aim for the chopping block.
Narrator: The ‘broadax’ is a determination to look at your life with full force and without flinching; it is that inner tool which cuts through everything that gets in the way of your art. It operates in relationship with vision. The vision itself…
The Writing Life: … is no marvellous thing…it is a chip of the mind, a pleasing intellectual object….It is a vision of the work, not of the world…A writer sees the world, sees nature, sees God, sees life, and goes at it with a broadax of language and vision. All the time knowing the work is not the vision itself….It is not the vision reproduced in time…it is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try - you try every time - to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.
Narrator: Dillard, of course, is a lover of the artist, the word spiller. Although she has written about her drawing pursuits, (generally not very flatteringly), I haven’t yet seen any of her art work published. For her, the vision is best communicated by the broadax of language. That’s where her sense as the artist lies.
The Writing Life: …..the sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.…the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace…
Narrator: In preparing this piece about Annie Dillard’s work, I too have only the same word stuff with which to respond. I asked myself, how can I respond to such a sophisticated artful mistress of word?
Annie Dillard herself poses the question like this: Who will teach me to write? She then answers…
The Writing Life: The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because action is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellencies as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you write.
Narrator: I am mindful too at her insistence that the writer…
The Writing Life : …..give it all now, spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
Narrator: So, in my attempt to give it all, and with the help of my own paltry broadax, (as if this action were easy, a mere swing of a sentence, instead blundering lurches) here – already after seven pages - we go with Annie.
Annie Dillard is a lover of fixed points. Often these points are described locally, geographically or by noting the time of day. Whatever awareness we may personally have about a ‘kentron’ in life, we can never control life itself. Her statements are bold, categorical, confident. Words fall as quotable aphorisms or elongated, dense reflections upon the page. Her ideas are often rounded off with a pointed wry tone.
Holy the Firm: We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep in time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.
Narrator: Her own prose is most often not driven by reason or narrative sequence, but fixed moments propelled with personal insight in urgent need of utterance, or questions of cosmological meaning. Chronos time can quickly shift into kairos. Tenses become blurred. For her concern is always….
Holy the Firm: Not events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turnings.
Narrator: Phrases themselves seem to wriggle and thrash under the pin of her sharp pen. She wrestles to pin down time itself.