Reading "The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New," a heady selection of Annie Dillard's work, is to discover — or rediscover — this magnificent, fiercely attentive writer who wakes up each day "expectant, hoping to see a new thing."
"A live wire … shooting out sparks," Dillard charges her prose with urgency. For the reader, who may be floating amiably through the day, perhaps looking but not seeing, she puts out the call: Wake Up! "We have less time than we knew," she writes.
What a joy it is to take a walk with Dillard, to see a "cloud in the sky suddenly lighted as if turned on by a switch," or in winter "peach limbs swept and poised just so, row upon row, like a stageful of thin, innocent dancers who will never be asked to perform."
Nature stirs her, but she's not satisfied until she examines "all things intensely and relentlessly. … Do not leave it, do not course over it as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength," she writes in "A Writer in the World."
Dillard is a master of literary digression, what novelist Claire Messud called "a route to essence." Her idiosyncratic path may not suit all tastes, but following her brings surprise and illumination at every turn.
In "Paganism," she writes of camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, reading a novel about the poet Rimbaud by candlelight, when a "golden female moth … flapped into the fire," and her wings "ignited like tissue paper." Her "spectacular skeleton" kept burning "while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wet at my feet." She intertwines the moth's last light with her study of "rock mountain and salt sea" in the Cascades and the erosion of time in a meditation on the nature of god.
Her sly humor can sneak up on you, as in "The Weasel," when she finds herself "looking down at a weasel, who was looking up at me." The two are "stunned into stillness" and a brief stare-down, causing Dillard to wonder how the creature thinks. Gleefully, in "Being Chased," she recounts an exhilarating race with childhood friends as a man in a suit pursues them through backyards after they bombarded his Buick with snowballs.
With stirring language and powerful intellect, Dillard shows us what it means to be alive, to feel "the planet buck under you — rear, kick, and try to throw you — while you hang on to the ring." Relish the ride, for time is "pounding at you, time."
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance critic and feature writer based in Milwaukee.