This post was first published at The Master’s Artist.
I think of Annie Dillard, and I think of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her 1974 work on nature and life that won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction when the author was 29. Or I think of An American Childhood (1987). Or The Writing Life (1989). Or even Holy the Firm (1977), a book Frederick Beuchner loved. In her writing, Dillard spoke for a generation, and beyond.
What I don’t think of is Tickets for a Prayer Wheel: Poems, published in 1974 but largely overshadowed by Pilgrim. It was republished in 1988, and then again in 2002. Other than those by famous poets, few poetry books continue to be published over a three-decade period. But then, this one is by Annie Dillard.
I have the 2002 edition, published by Wesleyan University Press. I bought it a bookstore; I didn’t know that she had published poetry, and in fact she published this volume of poems before she published anything else.
She writes about the same things she writes about in her non-fiction: science, nature, eternity, time, seasons, holidays. She brings the same eye, and the same heart, that she brings to her other writing. The poems are simple, often almost stark, words and ideas cut with precision and insight. Here is her poem “Christmas:”
Trees that have loved
in silence, kiss,
crashing; the Douglas firs lean
low to the brittle embrace
of a lodgepole pine.
In cities at night
tin canisters eat
their cookies; the bed;
brushes it curtain of bead.
My wristwatch grows
flower big. Across
America, cameras gaze,
astonished, into the glass.
This is the hour
God loosens and empties.
Rushing, consciousness comes
and memory, wisdom, grace.
Birds come running;
the curtains moan.
Dolls in the hospital
with brains of coral
jerk, breathe and are born.
“This is the hour,” she writes, “God loosens and empties. / Rushing, consciousness comes / unbidden, gasping, / and memory, wisdom, grace.” What a startling, and perfect, description of Christmas.
Most of the poems are about this length; the title poem is considerably longer – 12 pages – and concludes the volume. It is a kind of play about prayer, about Jesus and the church fathers, a consideration of and reflection on what prayer means.
Dillard is not a “Christian poet,” but she is a poet, and a writer, who speaks of spiritual and Christian things.
Last year, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel was used as the source of prompts for a Tweetspeak Poetry jam on Twitter. You can see the three sets of poems developed from the jam here:
Photograph by Petr Kratockvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.