It’s because of how many sure, solid ones she takes that we forgive Annie Dillard her missteps. There aren’t many.
Her slit attention opened seldom. Or
Lou lay beside him, silent as bandages, …
But stinkers like this are far outshone by language so beautiful it shatters anything you thought might be possible to say with it.
I had never heard of The Maytrees until I wandered into the Provincetown Bookshop in early July. Next to the front door there is a shelf with books about Cape Cod, or specifically Provincetown, I can’t remember. I asked the proprietor if she had any recommendations, but by the time she’d recommended Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, I had already fixed my sights on The Maytrees (and so bought both). It’s a beautiful book published by Harper Perennial; the paper is luscious, with a deckle edge.
The Maytrees is an invocation: of Provincetown, of sand dunes and seashore, of cold blue gray. You can almost smell it, track it in on the soles of your feet.
Whenever I’m there, I feel like Lou when Dillard writes: A hundred freedoms fell on her. There’s nowhere else that really does that – evokes the same sense of belonging, not to the place itself, but to the earth and sea and sky at once. I feel grounded there, and like nothing can keep me from taking flight. It’s the light. That’s what does it.
Dillard refers to it – to the Cape, to Provincetown and the dunes – as “antiquity’s very surface,” and “this loping shore of mineral silence.” “Clams live like this,” she says, “but without so much reading.”
Even though it’s at the very edge of the country, balanced at the very tip with nowhere left to go, Provincetown sits at the intersection of so many things: sea and sky, moonlight and camp, grit and shine. The hard line of the fisherman’s trade and the soft palette of paint used to render it home. It’s a place where I can stand transfixed and transported at once by a red wooden dory rolling out of a fog bank in front of a well lit gallery glass; or where, as a friend of mine just wrote to me from Wellfleet, “reading on the screen porch at night and listening to the barking of the wild foxes. Shared a long moment, staring back at one today on the edge of the property. Such presence.” Provincetown – all the Cape, really – is that presence, what Dillard captures when she writes that “She claimed to like the way starlight smelled on sand.”
At its best – and who could argue – is the Cape’s ability to inspire in us, as it has done here in Dillard, a desire to take the true measure of love.
She writes, “And religions all said – early or late – that holiness was within. Either they were crazy or she was. She had looked long ago and learned: not within her. It was fearsome down there, a crusty cast-iron pot. Within she was empty. She would never poke around in those terrors and wastes again, so help her God. Provincetown was better.”