A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
New Pilgrims at Tinker Creek:
I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time when I was about fourteen years old. I don’t remember now what I thought of it. Back then, as when I’m lucky now, I responded to literature with a love so absolute it blocked even my desire to eat, or to moon over oldish boys. The glory of written English in those early days (as when I’m lucky now) stilled all but my nerves and mouth, both of which would abruptly break open, as I read, in disbelief and wonder. Good writing put me on edge, made me weepy and lost, as inept as the freshly lovesick. So I’m assuming I responded to Dillard’s book in just this way, for how could I have not? The fact that I can’t remember should not be taken as an indictment against it—please—but rather as evidence of how clouded my mind was, how filled with aspirations the high inward cost of which was probably just then dawning. The second time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was a junior at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia. My good-spirited, funny, American literature professor had assigned it for an advanced expository writing class, and I faintly remember writing a paper about Dillard’s verbs. I clearly remember admiring it, though in that context it would have been, as per the unfortunate but fruitful standard procedure, a fetal pig on the dissection table.
But all the time I was at Hollins—while a graduate student, while an adjunct; while in my three-year, full-time teaching position; while helping new Hollins freshmen with their poems and stories and essays and driving by Tinker Creek and watching it flood and spill and retreat and mud-up and flutter and shine; while talking to students and smoking cigarettes and birthing and divorcing and writing and marrying and birthing again and eating and weeping and leaving—I not only never read it, but I am embarrassed to say I never even thought about it twice, maybe for the same reason people who are born and live and die in Paris never visit the Eiffel tower. The book, it seems to me now, was there everywhere you looked. It was partly why you came and what you wished, impossibly, for everyone; it was the ideal—the standard against which almost everything was measured—and thus too big, like a twilight pond you’re swimming in, to see.
In January, first-year Hollins students are required to stay on campus to take intensive, preferably experiential workshops and seminars, while upperclassmen typically spend the month as interns, working for businesses and not-for-profit organizations all over the country. The faculty at Hollins during this time (if they are blessed) pursue more thoroughly those subjects that might get superficial treatment during the fall and spring terms, investigate new trends or movements, and so forth. What I am about to relate here in the eighth month of my leave from Hollins is the story of a class I taught during two such winter terms. It’s only now, as I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for a third time and tend my new daughter and investigate my years at Hollins though a fog of exhaustion and melancholy and awe, that I see that it was Dillard’s ethic—this method of looking closely at the world, of prodding the countryside with your camera and your finger and your walking stick—that the class sought to espouse and perhaps renew.
The texts for the class the first term I taught it were Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell, Robert Hass’s Human Wishes, Lisa Lewis’ The Unbeliever, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, so we were reading, as well, to be certain: studying practioners who put their own observations to good use for themselves and for their writing, but the main goal of the course was just to get out there and take a good look around. The class met four times a week: twice in the classroom to discuss the reading we were doing or to critique any writing we’d gotten done; twice to take a little road trip.
We stared at newborn babies in the hospital—at how pink they were, at how they wiggled or slept or grimaced or stared. Students noticed how stubbornly fetal the babies still were, how tucked into themselves and otherworldly; a few of the women breathed their longings into the nursery window and touched their bellies with their fingertips. Then we visited another college that housed a human corpse. The students leaned against the wall (almost pushing themselves into it, seeming to want to be as flat as shadows) until the anatomy professor unzipped the body bag. Then one by one they came forth and made a circle around the dead woman’s body. They asked why her face and genitals were covered with square blue cloths, about the needles pinning her skin back, where her breasts were, how long she’d been dead, which was the heart and where were the lungs, why she was lying there like that before them and had that been her wish and did her children know and did she have a name? We told the anatomy professor about the newborn babies, so she went into the closet and pulled out jars of fetuses that she’d discovered recently in a clean-up: babies at sixteen weeks, babies at eight months, babies twenty and thirty years’ dead in jar after jar after jar.
As we were leaving, one of my students asked almost to herself, though loud enough for us to hear, “did anyone else accidentally see her vagina?”
We nodded, supposing together that our group movement around the body must have blown the blue cloth up. Someone suggested that it—her vagina—seemed pinker than the rest of her body, which resembled the color of sand. Someone else said, “it still looked alive.” We all quietly nodded. Something true about us as women revealed itself in that odd, accidental moment—something that until that second we had not known about ourselves.
We walked through a field of cows in a thick morning mist and sat on the bank of a creek in Botetourt—this one was Catawba—and wrote in our notebooks while our jeans muddied and our hands chilled. We talked later about what the water sounded like, falling on the rocks: it was to us in that moment lots of tiny people clicking tiny tongues. On another day we went outside to record the cold without using the word cold, then we got as undressed as was decent and sat in a huddle in the sauna and tried to describe how hot our bodies were. We brought these experiences and questions and speculations back to the classroom, where in workshops we wondered aloud about the temperatures of words: was violin hot or cold? If it seemed cold to us initially because the object it represented had a sleek, black back, didn’t the sound it made warm it considerably? And what was the point of pondering the temperatures of words? Were we silly to think that the word “orange” seemed somehow, like a flame, to throb?
A friend of mine, who is the chief training officer for Roanoke’s fire department, took my students to our local training facility and had them dress in yellow fireproof overalls. He put oxygen tanks on their backs and masks on their faces. He asked them to crawl, two by two, through a building of long, narrow mazes, telling them to check with their palms for the make-believe fire. It’s dark in there—as dark as any cave—and because of the equipment and this lack of light, you’re totally deprived of your senses. The student I went in with got stuck, as firemen sometimes do, under a fake stairwell. The bell warning me that my tank was low (this was all a drill, remember, so the tank wasn’t really breathing for me) began to ring when I began to feel or hear or sense that my student was crying. I was holding her ankle, as I’d been instructed to do, but the mask was covering my mouth, so even if I could talk, which I couldn’t really, I knew Kristin wouldn’t be able to hear me over the panicked noise of the ringing bell. I wondered what the hell I thought I was doing; I thought I would quit teaching the minute I got out of the training maze, because this just wasn’t creative writing—it was asinine, it was dangerous, and who knew what psychological pain I was inflicting on these poor young women in general and this crying one in particular, who had only wanted to write a few poems during the month of January and was instead proceeding to burn to death in a theoretical house fire. But then I suppose Kristin took a deep breath and got herself together, for she indicated by shaking her foot that she was going to back up. So I backed up and she did, and together we maneuvered the rest of the maze without a hitch.
My students and I toured the local Goodwill, making long lists of every noun we saw. We saw a playpen filled with pantyhose; we saw chairs painted in little yellow polka dots and broken cups with lips in lipstick yet on their rims; we saw old wedding albums and Chianti bottles covered in black wax and children’s watercolors of mysterious drowning birds and ceramic mice eating ceramic cheese. We had lunch at the homeless shelter and barely could eat, we felt so ashamed of our good fortune; we visited the holding house for abused women and the closest thing to a convent we could find, where three middle-aged nuns sat on a couch and sang à capella for twenty minutes, sounding so young and innocent, like girls in white dresses, like angels, like saints. One of them, the one who’d invited us, told us she’d given up all her worldly goods and come to this sanctuary because as a young woman she’d been besieged by robbers, but then she went silent, looking far off into the distance. We spread out in the nuns’ house and wrote in our notebooks in an unmistakably divine quiet that we could not believe.
Once we even borrowed night-vision goggles from ITT. We went after dinner to the cove near the college and stared at the water and the stars, looking all around at the world in sudden sepia tone; we said that though these lenses everything looked like dreams or memories—all grainy and uncertain, as though the cove had caught the flu. We agreed we preferred to look, even at night, out of our own eyes.
In general, students who come to college to write—and many of the students at Hollins come quite strong-mindedly for this purpose—are an inward, reflective people. They are a people who wonder about the existence of God and the transience of life. They worry about the end of the world; they study themselves and their feelings and read books about creatures like themselves and, with their pencils in their hair or mouths or laps, ponder and brood and dwell. Often they are already exiles, or were born by way of their contemplative natures in exile; often they are lonesome, and too often forsaken. Many of the women I taught at Hollins are too smart for college boys—too serious and hungry. They are most at home in ideas and feelings, which they gather together like small stones or pebbles, filling their pockets like birds after Hansel.
This inwardness, of course, is a necessary blessing and a godsend, since art is impossible without it. It should therefore be honed and celebrated, as per the standard procedure, in creative writing workshops. It should also be fed in the more traditional literature classes with as many great books as possible. But it seems to me that we must also teach our students to look outward, not only because that’s where the world we seek to approximate is, but also because the imagination, which is of course our greatest tool, needs a point of departure, a dock: though the singing nuns my students and I found in Roanoke are actual singing nuns, they are also symbols, gloriously positioned side-by-side on a clean green couch: brides of Christ, yes: angles, yes: saints.
My students hung peaches and carrots from their ceilings and watched them slowly rot. They took long walks with field guides and eavesdropped at the Waffle House and attended the local churches and watched and listened and listened and watched because they were, as we all are, trying to learn how to see. And seeing, as nobody says better than Annie Dillard, is a necessary first step toward the imagination. Though it is true, as Flannery O’Connor says, that we have enough subject matter for a lifetime by the time we’re eighteen, we do not often have the wooden legs yet—in this culture we have Barbies; we have mini-vans and microwaves and Laura Ashley quilts. But by taking my students to the landfill, I gave them another, odder, more original and less commercial set of objects to know the world by. During one such trip we saw a kitten; one of the attendants told us it had come flying out that morning from a dump truck. We watched the kitten mew furiously from the top of a mountain of trash. At the landfill we also saw lawn chairs that looked like bumble bees and greedy sea birds swooping down to eat old chicken bones and other unrecognizable muck. The birds came flying down so fast it looked as though someone had opened up the sky’s lid and thrown down a giant deck of playing cards.
Justine Treadwell, a rising senior at Hollins, took the class I’m describing the winter of her freshman year. She wrote this to me in a recent e-mail from her (exceedingly adventurous) semester abroad. It seems to me to be worth quoting. She says: “I remember saying to myself somewhere between Gorakhpur and Delhi how empty adjective are . . . how nouns are as close to the real world as we can get in language, but how if you haven’t seen the nouns in their habitats then you cannot use them without being a thief of the most terrible ranks. And if you do, your writing will reek of it, of thievery: it will be green with all the most putrid rot. So you have to go to these places, to see the sky clear and then go black right after a storm. Because we are all after the flesh of things: we all want to be fleshed-out, and when you go to the jail or to the shelter, you are closer to knowing.”
In Deep Play, Diane Ackerman says: “The spirit of deep play is central to the life of each person, and also to society, inspiring the visual, musical, and verbal arts; exploration and discovery; war; law; and other elements of culture we’ve come to cherish (or dread). Swept up by the deepest states of play, one feels balanced, creative, focused. Deep play is a fascinating hallmark of being human; it reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking explicable, creativity possible, and religion inevitable.”
I know from teaching creative writing in a number of places besides Hollins that people in other disciplines already suspect us as writing teachers of playing too much—of giggling and messing around and joking and talking about ourselves and our messy body parts toward who knows what devilish end—and that thus the method of teaching I have just described would only increase the division we already experience among our colleagues. I also know that there are notable logistical problems with such a course— that athletic departments all across the nation already have dibs on the vans, that we’re ourselves exhausted and spent and need to teach less, not more. But herein lies perhaps the best reason of all for teaching on the road, so to speak, and that is that we must seek to constantly renew the way we look at the world, else it will cease to matter to us—to excite and invigorate and heat and throb. For it is as Annie Dillard says, that “some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”
copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins