To celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reviewing Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees. That’s right. For Annie Dillard, even her novel reads like poetry. Consider these lines:
“Behind his head, color spread up sky. In the act of diving, Orion, rigid, shoulder-first like a man falling, began to dissolve. Then even the zenith and western stars paled and gulls squawked.”
Toby Maytree came home to Provincetown, Cape Cod, after the Second World War and met Lou Bigelow. They soon fell in love and married, their lives bound by nature.
“His wife, Lou Maytree, rarely spoke. She painted a bit on canvas and linen now lost. They acted in only two small events–three, if love counts. Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death. That is the joy of them.”
Toby and Lou Maytree live a bohemian life. Toby works enough as a carpenter to support his real pleasure, poetry writing; Lou paints, rendering obsolete her MIT architecture degree.
“For a long time they owned no car, no television when that came in, no insurance, no savings. Once a week they heard world news on the radio. They supported striking coal miners’ families with cash. They loved their son, Pete, their only child. Between them they read about three hundred books a year. He read for facts, she for transport. Nothing about them was rich except their days swollen with time.”
Can life, or love, be any simpler for any married couple? Life in Cape Cod is idyllic for the Maytrees, and for a long while, time almost stood still. Until, a third person, their long-time mutual friend Deary, came between them. Anticipating the ambivalence of guilt and desire, Toby and Deary secretly plans a move away to Maine, leaving Lou to raise Pete alone in Provincetown.
“We bound ourselves to the fickle, changing, and dying as if they were rock.”
Dillard follows the Maytrees’ lives together, apart, and together again years later under very peculiar circumstances. She uses condensed and poetic language to describe the subtle beauty of love, the reality of human frailty, the numbing of separation, and the inevitability of death. Against the backdrop of nature, and a web of characters in the Maytrees’ lives, the author explores the power of forgiveness, the sharing of human responsibility, the acceptance of the human condition, and the preparation for death. Love can still triumph despite failings, and yet, she also queries, what exactly, is love.
For most of the novel, Dillard displays fully her expertise: meditative nature writing, her thoughts touching the realms of science, literature, anthropology, religion, and philosophy. I do not pretend that I fully comprehend all that Dillard writes. Eudora Welty in her 1974 New York Times review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek admitted that: “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.” Who am I to say I have understood all that Dillard has written here in The Maytrees. It may help if you are well-versed in Keats, Kafka, and Wittgenstein. But often it is in the language. Occassionally, her condensed language has left me cold and clueless. However, it is also her language that appeals to me. Amidst the ambiguity, I have appreciated the mesmerizing power of her poetic sense.
“Later he stood on the foredune’s lip and looked at the stars over the ocean. A wider life breathed in him, and things’ rims stirred and reared back. Only the lover sees what is real, he thought. Only the lover sees the beloved truly, inwardly. Far from being blind, love alone can see. Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled his world. He felt he saw through Lou’s eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin. Or somewhat less so.”
At the end, death wraps up a life and a narrative. Surprisingly, Dillard describes it in a prosaic and matter-of-fact manner. And yet, the images are vivid, and the humanity shines through. This is the genius of Annie Dillard. The Maytrees is a gem of a story; it gives and demands much. It may need some effort to plough through, but well worth the time. And like poetry, you would want to go back and savor it again.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Harper Collins, 2007. 224 pages.
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