In 1975 Annie Dillard took up residence on an island in Puget Sound in a wooded room furnished with "one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person." For the next two years she asked herself questions about time, reality, sacrifice death, and the will of God. In Holy the Firm she writes about a moth consumed in a candle flame, about a seven-year-old girl burned in an airplane accident, about a baptism on a cold beach. But behind the moving curtain of what she calls "the hard things rock mountain and salt sea," she sees, sometimes far off and sometimes as close by as a veil or air, the power play of holy fire.
This is a profound book about the natural world both its beauty and its cruelty the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dillard knows so well.
About the Author
Annie Dillard has written twelve books,including in nonfiction For the Time Being, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Read an Excerpt
Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.
I wake in a god. I wake in arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt.
Someone is kissing me -- already. I wake, I cry
"Oh," I rise from the pillow. Why should I open my eyes?
I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.
Today's god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.
Under the quilt in my knees' crook is a cat. She wakes; she curls to bite her metal sutures. The day is real; already, I can feel it click, hear it clicking under my knees.
The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears' holes, whole and entire. I call it simplicity, the way matter is smooth and alone.
I toss the cat. I stand and smooth the quilt. "Oh," I cry, "Oh!"
I live on northern Puget Sound, in Washington State, alone. I have agold cat, who sleeps on my legs, named Small. In the morning I joke to her blank face, Do you remember last night? Do you remember? I throw her out before breakfast, so I can eat.
There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, with whom I keep a sort of company. Her little outfit always reminds me of a certain moth I helped to kill. The spider herself is of uncertain lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab. Her six-inch mess of a web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed. The web itself is in a comer behind the toilet, connecting tile wall to tile wall and floor, in a place where there is, I would have thought, scant traffic. Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses she has tossed to the floor.
The corpses appear to be mostly sow bugs, those little armadillo creatures who live to travel flat out in houses, and die round. There is also a new shred of earwig, three old spider skins crinkled and clenched, and two moth bodies, wingless and huge and empty, moth bodies I drop to my knees to see.
Today the earwig shines darkly and gleams, what there is of him: a dorsal curve of thorax and abdomen, and a smooth pair of cerci by which I knew his name. Next week, if the other bodies are any indication, he will be shrunken and gray, webbed to the floor with dust. The sow bugs beside him are hollow and empty of color, fragile, a breath away from brittle fluff. The spider skins lie on their sides, translucent and ragged, their legs drying in knots. And the moths, the empty moths, stagger against each other, headless, in a confusion of arcing strips of chitin like peeling varnish, like a jumble of buttresses for cathedral domes, like nothing resembling moths, so that I should hesitate to call them moths, except that I have had some experience with the figure Moth reduced to a nub.
Two summers ago I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ramsey Ullman's The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting under a tree by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.
Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cooking pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched -- a pan, a lid, a spoon -- so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could release by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks Of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine...Holy the Firm. Copyright © by Annie Dillard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Annie Dillard writes boldly and brings the same devoted attention to a dusty beetle carcass or a weather pattern that she brings to the mutilation of a child, to human relations and to god. She is earnest in a rare, humble and humorous fashion, never flippant or cheap and occasionally riveting and wise. Because of the passages that she gets right, I don't feel like ripping apart the weaker places in this book where she seems to fall short, channeling, for instance, the least exceptional moments of Walt Whitman or Hart Crane or the passages where, for one reason or another, I don't wrestle along beside her with whatever tragedy or injustice she spends pages piling objects and experiences around. I have patience for her because she has at least three distinct ways of getting it right: Her focus on small things generally seems warranted, even when she doesn't tax her subjects with becoming metaphors that help her assemble spiritual thoughts. To me, such passages can be a useful reminder to slow down and pay attention; to get outside of myself. And they are written nicely, reminding me of Francis Ponge, "There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, with whom I keep a sort of company. Her little outfit always reminds me of a certain moth I helped to kill. The spider herself is of uncertain lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab. Her six-inch mess of a web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed. The web itself is in a corner behind the toilet, connecting the tile wall to tile wall and floor, in a place where there is, I would have thought, scant traffic. Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses that she has tossed to the floor." When she admits other humans into her narrative, she treats them with tender care and assembles, quite deliberately, the circumstances that make them sensible, "She saw me watching her and we exchanged a look, a very conscious and self-conscious look--because we look a bit alike and we both knew it; because she was still short and I grown; because I was stuck kneeling before the cider pail, looking at her sidewise over my shoulder; because she was carrying the cat so oddly, so that she had to walk with her long legs parted; because it was my cat, and she'd dressed it, and it looked like a nun; and because she knew I'd been watching her, and how fondly, all along." And she inevitably (at least in her works that are not novels, in which she can comfortably announce, "Nothing is going to happen in this book") gets to talking about god or about divinity or immanence or transcendence, or whatever she is comfortable calling it. She forages through the mystic tradition of various religions unearthing salient little quotation gems (though mostly from Judeo-Christian sources) and unflinchingly adds her own prerogative, which is reliably unorthodox in a fashion that is both critical and accepting. She is also more than comfortable launching small attacks against god and theology: "Did Christ descend once and for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide, or ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home?" I can imagine her utterances about God proving abrasive to some readers and a real cynic might associate some of her musings with a thinly elevated chicken soup for the soul sort of pocket philosophy; but I don't think that Dillard is trying to write manuals or aphorisms and I like that she is unashamed to mix her personal doubts and struggles into the thoughts and observations that she is good enough to share. This book is scarcely fifty pages long and it is not nearly as good as "Teaching a Stone to Talk."
Miss Dillard effort was at times illuminating and other times boring. Poetic and times and incoherent at other times. I like to read PNW writers but found this book more work than inspiration.