The shape of the air

The last day of April and the air feels mildly thicker than it did a week ago, settling like a welcome lightweight wool blanket in the chilly evenings and mornings, but not yet stifling, as it will likely feel in another month.

The air curves around the house. Around the fragile new leaves. The air reshapes itself daily around the round goat (who is due to deliver her kids any day now), easing back slightly each day to leave her more space. The air lifts up the blades of grass that have been lying brown and compressed under the snow for months and then claims its space between the upright blades.

The air fills our mouths, shapes itself to our throats, makes words, makes songs.

In honor of the last day of April, the last day of National Poetry Month, and writer Annie Dillard’s birthday, here’s a part of a poem by Annie Dillard called “The Shape of the Air”. (You can see the full list of poems I’ve selected this month here.)

This is the final part of a four-part poem. The first describes the idea of the shape of the air, as it lies across the land, folds itself into objects and animals, slides under, around, and through. The second describes the interaction between wind and the shape of air. The third introduces the image of a birchbark canoe in an unnamed museum’s Hall of the Americas (perhaps the American Museum of Natural History?):

The girl
climbed in the museum’s birchbark canoe
in April, and has lived there since.
Crowds came, and thinned.
Visitors leave food.

In the final part, we have the air and the girl and the birchbark canoe.

The Shape of the Air
Around the Girl in the Birchbark Canoe

Willow and skins
make a calm-water bullboat;
it raises a bowlful of air from the floor.
There’s a thorn
of tipi up in the air, a splinter
of kayak. The top of the air
loops like an acrobat around the rough
sides of a forty-man dugout
hung from the roof.

The keel of the birchbark canoe
is pitched with resin;
the keel of the museum’s air still smells
of the volatile oils of pine.
The air around the birchbark canoe
is a spoon through the part in her lips.
Air makes inlets up her fingers,
grooves, transparent.

When she moves,
the air sways and fills.
Air cups at her eyes.
Warm slabs of air
from her shoulders rise,
spread to the plaster dome.
concentric arcs of air
swell in a cone
of her mother
her father
calling out
across wild white water.

–Annie Dillard, from “The Shape of Air”, Tickets For a Prayer Wheel, Copyright © 1974 by Annie Dillard

The joy of being seen

On the drive home from school today, Hyla told me she’d borrowed a book from her English teacher.

Her English teacher gives the students some time to do their own reading every day (how jealous I am of that; “You must sit here now and read a book you enjoy.”), but Hyla’d forgotten to pack her own book this morning, so she selected one from her teacher’s classroom library.

In the car, she told me about the book. “The first chapter is about weasels. And the second chapter is about the south pole. I really think you’d like this book, Mom.”

When we got home, she dug the book out of her heavy backpack. I smiled with recognition. She had picked out Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, a book of essays by one of my favorite authors. A book I’d read and loved years ago, then shelved and half-forgotten, until I saw it my twelve-year-old’s hands.

How well this girl knows us, her parents.

We’ve studied her all these years, since the very first hours, when we stared and stared and stared, trying to memorize every feature, knowing how soon she’d grow and change, and how soon we’d forget the things we told ourselves we could never ever forget.

It never occurred to me that she has been studying us, too. But of course she has.

She knows more than she ever lets on, the beautiful and the embarrassing. She knows the foods I loathe and the books I love, the things that make me cry and the things that make me angry, that ducklings make me happy and cold weather makes me impatient.

I suddenly feel exposed, in the nicest way.

Seen. Known. Loved.