It’s 1978 and I am sweating on a badminton court across from Annie Dillard. She wears a tank top, tennis shorts, and Converse sneakers with jagged blue diagonals. I am her dazzled student whom she has agreed to volley. We are not keeping score. Every other shot she makes is a soaring lob. Her flashy underhands shuttle the cock just shy of the gym ceiling’s high beams. It drops deep on my side, forcing me to scuttle like a crayfish and dribble my return. There she is already, on flexed knees at the net.
“Do you want to take a break?” she asks, spinning her racket head by the handle.
“No,” I puff, stopping to mop my brow. She ambles to the back of the court and lowers the racket to deal me another monster serve.
At several sports she is an adept. She sends department chair Doug Park to the hospital after a round of tennis against her tore him down. The poor guy gimps around the halls of Western Washington University for several weeks on a twisted knee. “Boys welcomed me at baseball, too,” she writes in An American Childhood, “for I had, through enthusiastic practice, what was weirdly known as a boy’s arm.” Decades later Pico Iyer got drilled at Key West by her ping-pong paddle, “each returned slam threatening to send a stack of books on esoteric theology or meteorology skidding off the dining-table not far from a body of water.” In person and in print, my teacher is a formidable competitor.
My good fortune was an accident, my mentorship by chance. Her book that won the Pulitzer Prize, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, took my classmates and me by storm, even if its soft philosophizing lay beyond our range. A transfer from Seattle, I squirmed beneath her probing gaze, her eyes that almost cross in fierce intensity. During her six-year hegira to our hinterlands, I became a witless beneficiary of her teaching and her art. She cast a radiance that is grand, uncanny, like the symbolic moth her candle blinds, the moth that dies and makes itself a second wick. She put my home geography on the literary map.
Her Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, won in 1975 when she was barely 30, precedes her move to the islands in Washington State by one month. She leaves North Roanoke, Virginia, the setting for the book she will be forever known for. She leaves her professor-husband, Richard Dillard. Overcome by offers to speak, appear on TV, grant interviews, and judge contests, she yearns for tighter privacy to sustain a writing regimen.
All the attention saps her energy for the focus she so craves. She is a peculiarity not just because she won the nation’s highest literary prize at a young age, also because some spectacle-mongering media try to make her a chick whose comeliness outstrips her gift. In an interview for Christianity Today, she is a charming darling who plays at peekaboo inside a grove of alder trees. My fellow students hand the glossy magazine around. One snickering female classmate dubs the piece “Cheesecake at Tinker Creek.”
Her chain-smoking undercuts her trivial image as “Walt Disney’s nature poet,” the petty phrase another classmate utters. The Vantage cigarette rarely leaves her hand. Thirty-five years later, Diana Saverin will report my former teacher still smokes.
Jittery in class from the crush of us thirty devotees, also from “the caffeine yo-yos,” as one interviewer will call it later, she shivers and seems sometimes ill at ease. Despite those shivers, she comes off as brilliant, even mesmerizing. She loads her speech with sonic features. Her penetrating questions pinion students and visiting writers.
The texture of her writing best displays her lyric gift. Her prose adopts the cadences of poetry, even rhyme. She began as a poet, she married a poet, she relishes poetic diction, syntax, and meter, and she passionately conducts discussions of it.
She focuses her introduction to creative writing class more on verse than prose. Poems can be undertaken on the spot more readily. They can guarantee we students get the reading done. We pupils are not the most well prepared. Certain measures need to be taken to compensate, certain expectations loosened or relaxed. She walks us through the work of English poet Jon Silkin, that assimilated Jew who heeded a call to a Christianized Marxism after a series of personal crises laid him low. She analyzes his flower poems up close for us, the daisies and the dandelions he chose to cast as organic machines, their slender petals reimagined as steel shards. Her laser gaze illuminates the way.
She underscores the whimsies of the canon. She nurtures a keen appreciation for the deserted verse of Conrad Aiken. She guides us through “First Death in Nova Scotia,” the Elizabeth Bishop poem that dallies with a childlike sentimentality. The word “tiny” used to describe the lily clasped in the hands of the child-corpse, our teacher says, takes a great artistic risk. Though she never says a word about it, she has published her own book of poems in 1974, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, two months before her Pilgrim came out.
A covert fanboy, I bury myself in articles about her. I scrutinize the photos that followed her celebrity splash four years before. One Pittsburgh newspaper reduces her to a “poetic waif.” Elsewhere, she is an erudite party doll, a Joni Mitchell of the literati, both those women modeled as if they were toys, cigarettes kept out of sight of the media’s vast panopticon, their ropes of golden hair like sunbeams, limbs and lips astonishingly mobile.
Our Salish Sea harbors more than 400 islands, and Lummi and Waldron Islands serve her variously as homes. In the books she works on, the persona of a recluse creeps in, a solitude as she had in Pilgrim, composed while living with her husband. “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold,” she had written there; “some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock.” If she yearns at heart to be a solitary sister, committed solely to her art, she is also a lover, and the two have rarely tangled well. “Religious she certainly is and, given her craft, often alone,” Cantwell wrote for the New York Times, “but she is no St. Jerome in the desert.”
My beloved teacher, musing in her journal early on, doubted that Pilgrim would be taken seriously if she were to position herself as “a Virginia housewife named Annie.” The persona she crafted in that first prose book is deliberate and determined. It never mentions her professor-husband whom she married in the summer of her sophomore year, never mentions the red-brick houses she ambles past to gain access to Tinker Creek.
Having rusticated herself to the Pacific Northwest, she regards the pageant of her fame with dismay, even with revulsion. She has distanced herself from the nation’s intellectual centers to slough off some old skin. One interviewer writes that “she grew restless, determined to flee the narrow confines of the Pittsburgh upper-class society into which she was born” – a class rift deepened by her sudden and spontaneous renown.
She will “live a life of letters, a life of the mind, somewhere else.”
She and I are walking and talking beneath tall campus elms on an April afternoon. I’m a bird nut, and I hear evening grosbeaks. I look to branches above our heads and spot a flock feeding on catkins – those early flowers of leafy trees, their waxy nutritious buds.
“Do you hear that?” I ask. She hears but doesn’t know what to make of the calls. She has moved from Virginia and has yet to learn the species of our Northwest region. Black shapes bob among the boughs, pulsing forth and back to one other in feeding cries.
“Warblers?” she answers. I let silence prevail for a few more beats. She tunes in, peers up, eyes almost crossed, mouth open. Wonder lights her features. “Grosbeaks!”
Our walk takes us to the Humanities Building where she has her office. Outside the door she stops and crushes her Vantage. Before we mount the steps, she gets in my face, as she has done to others before. Seen from afar, she might appear to be scolding me. Her face intense, features squinched, those eyes of hers crisscross in concentration.
Henry David Thoreau, on whom she wrote her M.A. thesis at Hollins College, told his audience the preservation of the world lies in its wildness. Those wild grosbeaks might be upholding human souls. Or, through a process of inverse sublimation, the birds might be airy souls from the other side that have broken through and taken fleshly shape.
“It is so important to listen like that!” she inches closer and cries. “Don’t stop listening and watching. You’re being summoned, and you need to hear and heed the signs forever.” She is breathless by the time she finishes her impromptu harangue. She stops just short of recommending I pray without pause that such miracles may never cease.
Doug Park, the wounded chair of the English Department, is peering at us through a ground-floor window of a door. He comes out slowly. His knee is mostly healed, and he is moving well enough to steer the brick steps down. He gives us a quizzical onceover.
Our talks take place more often indoors than out. On a late evening at a downtown beer bar, I introduce her to foosball, aka table soccer. Annie has never seen the game before, never cracked the wrist and slammed the hard white foosball home. She focuses keenly and tries her hand, deploying the same forearm flick that lofts the shuttlecock. A house band is playing loudly, though, and he needs to concentrate to master the game. Her husband-to-be, Gary Clevidence, in a flourish of hearty irony, suggests we pass the plate to collect a cover charge and demand the band suspend its poor performance.
Fellow student Dan Butterworth and I edit the student literary journal, Jeopardy. Annie lets us have a prose piece, a three-paragraph squib titled “A Note on Process.” We are so pleased to get it from our Writer-in-Residence. Her note describes an English Department and a teakettle much like our own. Her note likewise specifies a clothespin the narrator clamps on her pinky, a device to achieve a constant pain that grounds her. The pain reminds her the kettle risks being scorched every moment she is heating it for instant coffee. The clothespin “kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled.”
What she means about the real world I will later learn firsthand. Artists often forsake that world and enter a zone where basic needs are forgotten, where food and toilet breaks prove noxious. Pain of any sort helps keep the real world real. At work on her novel The Living, published in 1992, Annie will shed twenty-five pounds. “A Note on Process” will be folded into a 1982 essay titled “Wish I Had Pie” that appeared in Black Warrior Review. The whole essay, or most of it, will appear as chapter three of The Writing Life, published in 1989. Like most writers, Annie often repurposed her squibs.
The year after we play badminton, Gary takes Annie east across the Cascades to hills above Yakima, Washington, to view a solar eclipse. Watching the racing shadow of the moon “was like seeing a mushroom cloud,” she wrote. “The heart screeched.” The literary result of that spectacle in the heavens, “Total Eclipse,” published first in The Atlantic in 1982, ranks among the “Ten Best American Essays Since 1950,” editor Robert Atwan declared in 2012, and many of us readers of her remarkable prose agree.
When the moon darkens the sun, she undergoes a visionary encounter that extends for thousands of words. Beneath the shock lies mindfulness that earthly life would collapse in the absence of photosynthesis. Her references to antiquity draw upon intimate relationships with the sun that inspired the makers of Stonehenge to line up geometrical rows of stones. Her grappling with the sublime in the essay recalls stories I have heard: fragile Victorian travelers sometimes fainted upon their first view of the Swiss Alps. “Total Eclipse” is a poetic ecstasy – a brooding meditation on antiquity, death, and love.
More than intellectual wonder propels the essay, a quality more personal than just another bloodless exploration of consciousness alone. Her fraught response to the lunar eclipse conjures saints in the Middle Ages who meditated in ecstatic detail on Christ’s end-of-life ordeals, aka Christ’s “passion.” Both spiritual and physical love subliminally undergird the essay. In a cognitive shift she even manages to reproduce the throbbing lull of post-coital lassitude. “The clamoring mind and heart stilled,” following the astronomical encounter, “almost indifferent, certainly disembodied, frail, and exhausted.”
In less-empathetic viewers the total eclipse might be only humdrum, but for her it rises to religious epiphany. She is an empath, I conclude – extraordinarily caring, often distraught, never fully at home in the world. Empaths are known for their keen desires and abilities to help others, to place themselves in the circumstances of others, to connect on a deep or spiritual level, an ideal state of being for a teacher. Empaths are also known for being condemned, like the Titan Atlas, to shoulder the burden of the entire world. Never the kind of teacher for whom literary emulation succeeds, she demands originality. She invites us to follow our bliss, in that countercultural maxim, to recover memories we have learned most from. Look to the text of the great outdoors, but always keep from glorifying, romanticizing, valorizing it. For her class I write a sappy memory from my childhood about a grouse drumming on a log and a child that gains self-insight from the vision. She grouches, in a memorable physical metaphor, “I’d like to get my elbows in there and shove some of those surplus words out.” Her metaphor recalls the moves used on the courts and fields when she flourished her rackets, paddles, and bats.
In the elite all-girl academy and women’s college where she came of age, she could have seen nothing like Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. Her cross-continental move has landed her, with scant advance knowledge, at our alternative institution on the so-called Left Coast. On that satellite campus of Western Washington University, students are awarded no grades. They receive detailed narrative evaluations at term’s end instead. Nor do Fairhaven students major in specific disciplines. They design interdisciplinary projects. Only the skies above the islands constrain their imaginations.
With no warning in the middle of class one day, two activists burst in. They sport camouflage, brandish plastic riflery, and wear ape masks. They hoot like apes. The guns and ape masks rightly terrify. Annie cries, as if being crucified, “Someone take over!”
No one makes a move, till the apes lift off their masks and flash big grins, plenty pleased with their performance. They aim to alarm us all about the Salvadoran Civil War. Central America is a hotbed of undercover crime. Anti-communist Contras, fueled by cocaine sales, battle Sandinistas in Nicaragua. America will trade arms to Iran to fund the Contras. A former Contra will be linked to the slaying of Archbishop Óscar Romero.
Another day in class, Annie tries to lead us to discuss the nature of evil. Discourse on religious conviction is uncommon at Fairhaven. The separation of the church and state comes instantly alert within us, whereas she has attended a private women’s academy as an undergraduate. We cannot detach her topic proposal from Christianity, nor have we yet learned about the philosophical distinction between moral evil and natural evil.
Tim, our resident Sasquatch – tall, bespectacled, bearded, and longhaired – rises from his seat to challenge the premises of the proposal. “Evil is only a myth,” he booms from the center of the room, “a symbol of human sickness and hatred, brimstone-scented propaganda of the man.” Tim convinces us that he has thought the matter through. He becomes our voluble proxy. Several of us nod and murmur our assent. Her moralistic experiment proves altogether brief. Our flummoxed teacher shifts the conversation.
Between deep drags of her Vantage in the classroom on yet another day, she asks if we know a certain Emily Dickinson poem on the miracle of bird flight. As dumb luck would have it, I had just memorized that poem #359. I am thunderstruck. It is as though she has seen clear through the thin plates of my forebrain. If I raise hand and confess that I know the lyric, my mates might rank on me for brownnosing. Worse, Annie might sense I have committed the poem to memory and will lean on me to ream it out. The thought of performing impromptu oral interpretation made me want to hack a Vantage of my own.
Already I had grown convinced she is a sensitive in the antique sense, a channel to past lives. Her eyes, often crossed as camouflage, both captivate and spook me. My hand rises on its own, and a sweat drop corduroys my ribs. She acknowledges me, leans on me, and I haltingly deliver the poem, which ends with a harmonizing pair of figures to describe the everyday event of bird-flight in terms of both culture and nature:
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer home –
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Annie yelps and rises to her feet. “She packs the whole world in a ball and throws it to the cosmos!” She admires the imagistic explosion, if not my breathy recitation. I excuse myself and slink out to the drinking fountain to try to wash the tension from my craw.
Even the most free-spirited among us sometimes flinched over her class habits. She leads us to stamp the cadence of “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. At the same time as we are hoofing out the poem, we are asked to chant the verse in unison.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
We raise the roof of the Fairhaven classroom and shudder the ceiling of the underworld. If some among us find the chants and stamps inspiriting, they prove too much for others.
Annie Dillard transmogrifies for me into an old-timey evangelist bent on damning out the demons we can’t see. Or a shaman whirling a bullroarer above us to baffle away the Dark One. “I had a head for religious ideas,” she wrote in An American Childhood. “They were the first ideas I ever encountered. They made other ideas seem mean . . . . I had miles of Bible in memory: some perforce, but most by hap, like the words to songs.”
She and I have more in common than I first discern. It is not a rigorous training in some fundamentalist devotion which we share, nor an appetite to indulge in structures and in creeds. It is that I, like her, seem unable to disremember the least detail of my life.
In a photo of my teacher in her early 20s which imprinted itself on me, she leans against a peeling doorjamb and pitches a broad smile toward the camera – one foot propped behind her, white-blond tresses twisted into tails. Frayed bellbottoms sag from slim hips, and ratty sneakers sheath feet. Her arms are slender, her frame bony. Her figure flirts with an emaciation that conceals the great strength I have come to know.
Vanity Fair magazine runs an article that overlaps for me with that old snapshot. The article asserts that architecture, like women, “can never be too rich or too thin.”
Her university office is spartan bare. It holds only a yellow legal pad, an oaken swivel chair, and a bedroom pillow to cushion her backside. She overlooks a leafy quad. Later, she will make it plain that scenery distracts her when she is trying to write. “One wants a room with no view,” she will muse in The Writing Life in 1989, “so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Her university office is a monk’s cell, a nun’s cloister, a den of deprivation. The only diversions are a big bag of chocolates and a brimful ashtray. A graduate student, I show up weekly for a “directed study” with her, an open-ended one.
For her scant attention I am grateful. A writing project is preoccupying her. Three years later, in 1982, it will become Living by Fiction – “a horrible dull book that I never should have published.” She is composing in longhand on the legal pad. The fringe of the pad is decorated with doodles, just like other longhand manuscripts now housed in the Beineke Library at Yale.
She recalls the Dickinson poem I sweated through two years before. I credit my appetite to memorize to a two-year course of study for my Lutheran confirmation. She assigns me to commit to memory more poetry and prose and recite it to her in her office.
Little do I know how patristic such a regimen is, that routine of memorization and recitation at the master’s feet. Such an exercise also cuts down on the student papers she needs to read, an obstacle for any working writer. During the office meeting I remember best, she assigns me to commit to memory and orally interpret to her a poem by Hopkins. I slyly choose “The Sea and the Skylark,” a heretical bit of verse, a sprung-rhythm experiment that ends with the phrase “man’s first slime.” I choose that jagged verse for its shock value. Who knew that a Jesuit priest could be so perceptive as to echo Darwin?
The Sea and the Skylark
On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
Annie falters, puckers, and frowns – as if she has taken a taste of one of the slugs that creep and glisten the college walkways. The final line of the poem that I recite, elevating neither man nor God, runs afoul of both the centuries-old humanist project and the Biblical assertions that justify how life on Earth began. She frowns, though several of her books make plain she has discovered compatible ways to reconcile science and faith.
She is a mite too spiritual for me, too earnest if not also too devout. To her credit, though, she does not openly object to my judgment in poetry. She lets me have my head.
In academic circles it has become customary, even fashionable, to strip ancestors of their garlands. Witness, for instance, the reproaches of Harold Bloom that proliferated after his death in 2019. We academics too often train our fault-finding erudition upon the dead, the dying, and the silent alike. In a 2010 interview, Annie admitted she suffers from low blood pressure, a condition that makes it harder to compose her gorgeous prose.
That disorder might account for her lack of productivity following her second novel in 2007. That last original book she published, The Maytrees, is a tour de force set in historic Provincetown, Massachusetts, near where she spent part of every year before the 2020 death of her third husband, the biographer Robert D. Richardson.
If she has been too absent for some pundits – who have turned themselves inside out in efforts to figure out why – she has not been missing for me. We are still rallying, after a fashion, and I am tempted to craft a metaphor involving her sky-high serves on the badminton court. She aims just over the heads of many of us readers, and yet we relish her original insights all the same. Though I no longer speak directly with her, I listen still by contemplating the good advice she gave me in class and on the page. I remain the dazzled student she came to know so long ago, and I pray neither of us is keeping score.
- Badminton with Annie Dillard - March 6, 2022