Mornings Like This

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609

As Annie Dillard notes in the introduction to Mornings Like This, most books of poetry do not need explanation, primarily because the reader assumes that they are original poems, written by a poet, for an audience that expects creativity and originality. While the audience’s expectations are fulfilled after reading the nearly forty poems in this collection, the fulfillment does not come from reading original poems written by a poet. Except for some titles and subtitles, Dillard did not write a word ofMornings Like This. Rather, she has “found” poems from a variety of other sources: letters by Vincent van Gogh, passages from a medical text, observations by a natural historian, first lines from a poetry anthology, instructions from a painting manual.

Like the artists Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, who “found” art in ordinary objects such as soup cans and bicycles, poets have frequently appropriated texts from advertising copy, song lyrics, and menus for their poetry. Unlike those kinds of found poems, however, Dillard’s do not present whole texts as “found.” Instead, Dillard opts for a unique approach to found poems insofar as she selects bits of broken text and invents their themes and orderings. As she admits, she has “lifted” the sentences, sometimes dropping certain words but not adding any words. The result is a collection that amuses, delights, provokes—a collection that fulfills the expectations of readers who turn to poetry for epiphanies that are induced by the creativity and originality of a poet, in this case a poet who recycles the work of others.

Some of the sources for Dillard’s poems contribute multiple inspirations, the richest source being Max Picard, whose 1948 book The World of Silence inspires three poems in this collection. The title of Picard’s book suggests a motif that connects this trio of poems—silence—but the title of each poem demonstrates how Dillard has added her own creativity to Picard’s text: “The Child in Spring,” “Attempt to Move,” “Pastoral.” In the first poem, she paints a portrait of a youngster who “is like a little hill of silence,” while the second poem chooses geographical locations, all silent, to paint a village, a roadside, a house, a cityscape, a seascape. The last poem, aptly titled to suggest a pastoral canvas, paints a picture of a peasant plowing ground with his oxen, the animals “carrying silence” with them. Read together, these found poems paint visual pictures of an auditory sensation.

Another source of multiple inspiration is the painter Vincent van Gogh, whose letters inspire Dillard to assemble the poems entitled “I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken” and “A Letter to Theo.” The former, which is the longer of the two, is especially poignant for its questions that strike at the heart of both van Gogh’s and others’ malaise:

  If we do not learn from this, then from what shall we learn?
  We who try our best to live, why do we not live more?
  If we are tired, isn’t it then because
  We have already walked a long way?

In a similarly questioning mood, the poem addressed to van Gogh’s brother Theo ponders important issues, relating questions about art to questions about life:

What is drawing? How does one learn it?
To better my life—don’t you think I eagerly desire it?
Cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good?
Do you think we too shall be at the evening of our life?

In this lyric, as in the former one, Dillard, finding not only a poem but also the heart of van Gogh’s torment, assembles the artist’s words about torment in a way that touches the universal experience of uncertainty and fragility.

Assembling the words of an artist such as van Gogh presents one kind of challenge to Dillard, while assembling the words of Mikhail Prishvin and Martha Evans Martin presents a different one, since Prishvin’s and Martin’s books deal not with the torment of an artist’s soul but with the natural wonders of nature. From Prishvin’s Nature’s Diary, published in 1925, and from Martin’s book The Friendly Stars, published in 1907, Dillard collects two poems; all four focus on the infinite marvels of the natural world. Prishvin’s “Dash It” recalls “a puddle rippling,” while Martin’s “Stars” admonishes that enjoyment of the constellations demands that one “be satisfied not to expect too much of them.” The other poem inspired by Prishvin, titled “The Hunter,” and the second poem inspired by Martin, titled “An Acquaintance in the Heavens,” also alert the reader to the miracles of the external world, both emphasizing the solitariness of the individual within that world. For the hunter, the experience is described as that of an artist, stealing up close to take aim, alone with his target and his thoughts. For the stargazer who has acquaintances in the heavens, the experience is described as watching, alone in her bedroom, the nighttime mysteries that are transformed by the seasonal changes in the sky. Hunter and stargazer are thus “found” by Dillard as she culls poems from books whose prose was and is poetic.

Two other poems are particularly significant in this collection, as Dillard notes in her introductory comments. “The Sign of Your Father,” assembled from E. Hennecke’s New Testament Apocrypha, is a collection of written legends and fragmentary pieces. According to Dillard, her assembling these fragments on the page as poetry creates both a “surprisingly sober” appearance and a poem exploring the mysterious nature of Christ’s words and the fragmentary quality of knowledge that is not intellectual but spiritual. Using startling punctuation—“(riv)er Jordan” and “(His) disciples ask him (and s)ay”—including unexpected ellipses, this poem concludes with Christ’s answer to the question of what, exactly, “is the sign of your Father in you”: “It is a movement/ And a rest.”

The Apocrypha’s cryptic quality is shared by the other source that Dillard comments on in her introduction, a piece by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the only source of these found poems who is a poet himself. Dillard notes that she does not, however, include one of Mayakovsky’s poems. Instead, she culls from a piece of travel journalism that Mayakovsky wrote in 1926 titled Moye otkrytiye America (My Discovery of America). Dillard observes that Mayakovsky’s “subject meets only glancingly the poem’s subject,” the latter’s subject being not America but the question of perception, as evident in the one repeated line that follows Mayakovsky’s lengthy descriptions of the American terrain: “Maybe it only seems that way.” Thus Dillard finds in the Russian’s description of America the perennial challenge of appearance parading as reality.

Yet not all these found poems are serious ponderings about eternal verities. Some are pure fun, such as the poem about baseball, taken from The Stats Baseball Scoreboard, which includes the epigraph “(Hi, and welcome to our new book. We already know you like baseball.)” This welcome inspires Dillard to assemble a poem titled “We Already Know You Like Baseball,” which includes a series of questions that get at the heart of baseball and the humor inherent in the sport: “Do Sacrifices Sacrifice Too Much?/ Will the Dome Lift the Jays to the Skies?”

Getting at another heart, this one being education, is the poem called “The Handy Boy,” which is mined from a nineteenth century text by D. C. Beard aptly titled The American Boys Handy Book. In her poem, lengthier than most of the others in this collection, Dillard reviews such fundamental educational tasks as “How to Bind a Prisoner Without a Cord” and “Practical Taxidermy for Boys.” Perhaps the handiest advice for the handy boy is contained in the section “How to Make the Dancing Fairies, the Bather, and the Orator.” This how-to manual for puppet shows transcends the boundaries between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, offering timeless advice for would-be puppeteers.

Still other advice is implied in the poem entitled “Index of First Lines,” mined from The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry and Poets from the North of Ireland. If one were looking for inspiring first lines to encourage one’s own poetry making, some of Dillard’s findings would certainly be instructive and inspirational. Her ordering of these lines is both witty and, ultimately, provocative. She begins with this trio of opening lines:

A wounded otter,
A zippo lighter,
Balmy as summer. It won’t last.

The reader’s smile at this unexpected juxtaposition of openers changes gradually throughout the poem, until the last image concludes the litany of firsts: “What haunts me is a farmhouse among trees.” Dillard’s findings from an anthology of poems thus move the reader from gentle laughter to thoughtful wonder.

In addition to being haunted by a farmhouse in a verdant setting, Dillard is haunted by mornings, which provide both a poem and the title of her collection. As Dillard transmogrifies David Grayson’s The Countryman’s Year, published in 1936, she praises with admiration and enthusiasm the beckoning, inspiring qualities of “mornings like this,” mornings that are alive with potential and promise. Reminiscent of her memoir An American Childhood (1987), which extols the joys of awakenings, the last lines of “Mornings Like This” capture the invitation to create: “Give me time enough in this place/ And I will surely make a beautiful thing.” In her collection of found poems, Annie Dillard has surely made a beautiful thing.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, June 1, 1995, p. 1721.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 7, 1995, p. 13.

Library Journal. CXX, May 15, 1995, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, April 24, 1995, p. 65.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 25, 1995, p. C5.

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