Dillard

by

Yesterday was Annie Dillard’s birthday. A friend tweeted a link to one of my favorite essays, Living Like Weasels, which I’m posting again because I love it so much.

I was going to write today about sentences and writers who write them well, but that essay captures everything I could possibly say about energy, movement, mimesis, and rest. Oh, but I do need to link, once again, to Olivia Laing’s To the River.


From the official description: One midsummer week more than 60 years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the Ouse in 1941, Olivia Laing walked that same Sussex river from source to sea. The result is a passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape–and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love. Along the way, Laing explores the roles rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature and mythology alike.

While the book traces various, compelling histories, from the medieval to the personal, I kept pausing over Olivia’s sentences. Stream of consciousness contains the metaphor of water for a reason, and Olivia’s tribute to Woolf is as much in her sentences as in her subject. She writes them brilliantly.

Living in Switzerland has brought landscape and history to my attention in the way only a foreign country and such drastic geography can. Writers have always tried to capture and convey this landscape through language — an impossible but irresistible task. If poetry school taught me how to read, then Switzerland is teaching me to read setting and to recognize the direct links between text and topography.

Returning to Dillard (as one does), this description from An American Childhood has always resonated with my experience of Pittsburgh — of growing up there and of leaving:

But the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether, so I could fashion a life among books somewhere else. So the Midwest nourishes us (Pittsburgh is the Midwest’s eastern edge) and presents us with the spectacle of a land and a people completed and certain. And so we run to our bedrooms and read in a fever, and love the big hardwood trees outside the windows, and the terrible Midwest summers, and the terrible Midwest winters, and the forested river valleys with the blue Appalachian Mountains to the east of us and the broad great plains to the west. And so we leave it sorrowfully, having grown strong and restless by opposing with all our will and mind and muscle its simple, loving, single will for us: that we stay, that we stay and find a place among its familiar possibilities.

Where Olivia writes the water, Dillard writes the rush of wind.

Happy May Day.

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