Sunday, September 24, 2006

For Ann

The Baylor Alumni Association sends its alums a free magazine every year or so, even if they aren't members. I got mine this weekend, and this morning while flipping through it, casually over breakfast, something caught my eye. A brief story: Ann Miller died last month.

Ann Miller directed my undergraduate honors thesis. But I'm just a drop in a bucket. Ann Miller is a legend at Baylor. Everyone has an Ann Miller story. She held forth in class, reciting literature from memory, never using a book. Her intensity scared off some students, who called her "Killer Miller." She was known for "swooping down" on students on campus, to direct some intense question or instruction at them. Or maybe just to touch her nose to yours, say your name, leaving you mildly amused, mildly startled, mildly touched.

She was, as they say, a character. When I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, years after leaving Baylor, I recognized Ann Miller. Calling on a student, out of the blue, to recite a poem, announcing the deep need for poetry in life:
"It lifts one up," Miss Brodie usually said . . . "Where there is no vision . . . the people perish."


Miss Brodie was a bit of a fascist. But that's not what I mean. Instead, this: a charisma. A quality, not a thing.

Her obituary leaves no trace of the year she was born. I remember fellow students speculating on her age, and I have to say I became somewhat fascinated with the question myself. Energy poured out of her--she seemed beyond age. The last time I saw her, several years back when I was interviewing for a position at Baylor, she radiated as brightly as ever. At dinner, she leaned close to me, whispering in her deep voice, leaving the men at the table to talk among themselves. She announced that she wanted Madeleines for dessert. Does that mean anything to you, she asked, testing me. Yes, I assured her, yes.

And clearly she wanted to be ageless, because she's not telling, not even now.

And I'm not telling my Ann Miller story, either. It takes place in Fort Worth, not in Waco, after a Yevgeny Yevteshenko reading at the Caravan of Dreams. My friend (and fellow Miller groupie) Melanie was there, along with another Baylor student. We were poetry fanatics. Ann Miller was convinced Yevteshenko looked at her, straight at her. Maybe he did.

So I'm not telling my story. I'm keeping it with me. Instead of a story, I offer this poem, one of her favorites. For Ann.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

--Mary Oliver, from American Primitive

7 comments:

chris said...

That's a beautiful poem. I like it.

I'm sorry for your loss.

bdegenaro said...

I suspect that all of us who went into this line of work have memories of people like Ann Miller, people who nudged us in good directions, people who help us to keep going each day. Beautiful post.

dhawhee said...

Thank you for the post, D. Must have been eerie to find this out through something as impersonal as a newsletter.

Donna said...

Yeah, it was plenty strange, Debbie. Equally strange is the fact that several weeks back, someone arrived at my blog after doing a search with her name + Baylor. I remember wondering why someone would be doing that particular search, but, given her wild popularity at Baylor, it didn't seem that strange. It just didn't seem within the realm of possibility that she could have died.

Thanks, all of you, for the comments.

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