News arrives, blessedly late, that Nancy Willard has died. And immediately the table I’m sitting at, with its secret history of stains and scars, the cherry tree blossoming outside the window in a way that appears wet snow is clinging to its branches, the stone campus buildings in Poughkeepsie, New York that that I can’t see, but let’s say even in sun their sides look stained by rain—everything everywhere is seeped of magic. Of its possibility to be extraordinary. Which is not true. Only everything now is seeped of the possibility of being seen by Nancy Willard. And I feel it all wilt. But it’s really that I feel myself wilt on behalf of all these things, these things that she would remind me are straightening up and shining just fine.
This is not entirely how it happened, but because this story features Nancy Willard it feels quite true.
I was being held prisoner in the library of a college campus. I was both the prisoner and the jail-keeper. The prison itself was a beautiful attic room at the top of a very old library, and when I pulled back the wooden chair it squeaked a familiar song on the wooden floor—chair and floor, chair and floor, either a love cry or they were yelling at each other. As dust rose it rolled forwards and backwards in the attic light, like surf does. The window arched high, so all views from it were framed with an optimistic peak. When the students down on campus stopped to talk, leaning into one another, their backpacks rose and faced me, zipper smiles. Lots of students—not just the drama majors—wore all black. An all black ensemble looked quite nice when paired with bright lipstick, which is something I had to get to New York to know. From my perch I would sometimes see a spot of crimson gliding around the grey buildings, the dark-clad pedestrians. It rolled like a fireball. The red was so bright, in contrast, that it seemed to leave a trail of red behind it: in the rain, in the snow, in the night falling early.
I didn’t look out the window much. I had to write an essay. I had to rewrite an essay. Most of my classes called for essays and I had to somehow convey the information while making them good—that is, I tried to sneak in nice sentences where they were uncalled for. Sentences with images, sentences that wondered. And too many sentences. The teacher who was so keen on Chaucer that he became (clad all in green and slipper-boots, his ruddy cheeks rising above a carefully-trimmed beard) a Canterbury character himself, scrawled into my reading-response notebook: This is thoughtful, moving and elegantly-constructed. But please don’t write so much here at the cost of your other work. I was trying, too soon, to be a writer. Or: for all my learning I hadn’t learned to shut the writer off. That’s what the little sparrow who landed on the attic window said, anyway. I would use the word alighted, but he was scruffy and dingy and the light in the room dimmed rather than brightened when he appeared.
You again, he chirped. Don’t tell me you’re trying to write poetry into an Ethics of Journalism assignment?
I was surprised that I understood the bird, but not shocked. I lacked sleep and social interaction and anyway that’s what happens in prison, they say: the walls start to talk. At least this wall had a bird on it. And the bird had a very raspy voice, one that broke a lot—kind of like Scarlett Johansson’s—so it straddled the leap between speaking and singing quite naturally.
You know what you should do? The sparrow said. I waited. But he tucked his head to his wing and began cleaning himself, like he’d never spoken at all. When I looked up from the crossed-out page to the window again he was gone.
I soon learned from his visits that all humans bored the bird deeply, especially me. But because he had been born with the ability to help them, to see people better than they saw themselves, he had been cast out of the bird community. So he was doomed to perch—song-less, nest-less, void of V travel—on so many man-made windowsills.
Gift, millstone, whatever, he sighed. It’ll weigh you down whether you use it or not.
I nodded. I hesitated to talk to the bird, because it might prove I had gone crazy. And because my voice, after his, was so flat.
So listen, the bird said one evening, straightening himself out of a momentary deep sleep. I had tentatively identified him as a Vesper Sparrow, but between the light and the rain and the snow and the window glass it was hard to tell if his tail feathers were actually white. Can you scrap together six pages of decent poetry from all that nonsense you’re always scribbling?
Maybe, I said. In truth I couldn’t seem to write an analytical paper without writing a poem on the side margin—it was kind of like the laughing gas that helped me abide the root canal. But afterwards these squeezed margin jottings were often illegible, even to me.
Good, he said. I’ll come for them on Tuesday. He did that pre-flight thing where he shifted his weight forward, and I watched carefully, not wanting to miss the split second when he transformed from a toppling ball of feathers to a long-legged, full-flapping elegant thing. But then he swivelled his neck, looking back at me. And none of that doubt crap either, he said. You know, where you put in the poem that you can’t write this poem? None of that. Not for this. And like that he took-off, before I had a chance to say: I don’t know if I can do that.
The sparrow flying away with my poems on Tuesday was one of the nicest things I ever witnessed. The six pieces of paper flapped so wildly around the clamp of his beak it appeared as if the poems were doing the flying, just carrying the bird along for the ride. Have you ever been lucky enough to see something you toiled over whooshing away into endless sky? It makes you feel tiny. It makes you feel huge. It makes you feel not here and not there, like you’re something bigger than—other than—a body.
Time passed. More snow fell. In white skies the tree branches appeared as fissures—like each one had cracked into the sky, busted a spindly trail in it, and then suddenly stopped. Sometimes the sky darkened in the daytime, perfectly camouflaging a grey stone building inside it. When snow fell then it shone like glitter. I asked the sparrow if he was shaking because he was cold and he said no, that moving non-stop kept the white muck off his wings. White muck, he said. I told him him he had a way with words.
Hey, he said, that reminds me. You got in.
It seemed a funny thing to hear from someone stuck outside. I looked at him carefully. His black eyes seemed beady, but I suspected if you plucked them out of all that surrounding fluff they might be the bigger-sized marbles, the shooters.
Your poems, he continued. They must’ve been okay. They only let ten people in.
To what? I yelped. I had a fear of joining, of walking down the attic stairs.
Relax, said the bird. This is going to let you write all that stuff you have to cross out when you do those….papers. He croaked the word papers with impressive disdain.
Oh god, I moaned. Is it some sort of poetry class?
Seminar in fact. Two hours a pop: ten to noon. He yawned. Starting this Monday morning.
No skipping either. I’m going to escort you personally to the classroom door. Which, by the way, is a rare service—since I hate flying so low and so slow.
A strange wish, for a BB gun. I’ve never wanted one since. But right then I wished for one and I wondered: How much slower and softer would the bullet hit the sparrow for having first gone into window glass?
Look, I sighed, I don’t know if I can explain this to you. But using analytical language to dissect a poem—especially a perfect poem—is something like. Have you ever tried to sing when a cat’s sharp incisor is pressing on your throat? Or how about this? Imagine if after every few notes you sang you had to stop and—in a monotone human voice—explain what you just sang? Or maybe it’s more like the pain you’d feel from the crash if you tried to fly and clean your wings at the same time….
Relax, the bird interrupted. This won’t be that. You know the fireball you see out the window sometimes?
I jolted a little in my chair. I had assumed that zip of red was a hallucinatory side effect of having spent too many hours in the attic, staring at too many cross-outs on too many sheets of paper. Just yesterday I had admired it gliding between banks of snow and thought: Ah, that’s why fairy tales are always combining snow white and blood red.
What is it? I asked the bird.
You don’t recognize your own kind?
Wait, it’s a human who can fly?
Birds can scowl even harder than we can. Before this one I always thought they were just warbling as they preened.
She’s on a bicycle, you ninny.
That got me. I guess if you lived in a tower you’d think balls and cars and foxes were flying too.
But I only see red, I managed.
That’s her cape. It has a hood. And If you’re wondering, the hood has a tie, under the chin, so it doesn’t blow off at speed. I flew alongside her to check it out.
I thought you didn’t get close to humans?
I don’t. He turned his sparrow face away from the window, to the sky. But she’s almost not one of you.
Well, I said. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know anyone on campus who wore hooded capes, or wore that bright a color. I had never talked about a human with the bird before and I was disappointed, frankly. It reminded me that I wasn’t down there with them.
Maybe I’ll try to meet her, I managed.
Yeah you will. An empty space ensued, into which he trilled a few high, pure notes before turning back to me. Monday at ten. She’s your poetry teacher.
On the first day of class Nancy Willard handed around a sheet of onion skin. That’s what we talked about, that’s what we wrote about: the onion skin.
The next class was similar. I think she brought in some found poems from her medicine cabinet. It was—like the one before it, the one after it—a dream of a dream of a poetry lesson.
Nobody caught me ripping a fragment of text off a cracker box in the cafeteria. Nobody caught me trying to take the pulse of a leaf. Nobody caught me chalking words into hopscotch squares. Nobody caught me returning a borrowed pencil after I’d dipped the tip of it in yellow paint. Nobody caught me with bark on my tongue. Nobody caught me leaving odes to the sky under loose floorboards. Nobody caught me reading a How and Why Wonder Book of Magnets and Magnetism. Nobody caught me balancing on a gravestone. Nobody caught me in a spider web. Nobody caught me going into the janitor’s closet with a roll of Wint O Green Lifesavers.
If they had I could have told the truth. I was doing my homework.
My feathered visitor was gone for good. I began to realize what the bird had known already. That the thing I had been fighting in me in order to succeed in an academic setting—the dreamy, curious, imaginative, isolating tendency—was actually a gift, a source of connection. I didn’t prize it or tend to it right away. But I did let some of the fight against it dissolve, which made writing easier. The first time I realized I was smiling and writing, I looked straight over to the attic window, to the empty spot where the sparrow had perched. I missed his visits, even when I worked happily. But I knew if he appeared I would want to keep thanking him. And surely he’d take gratitude gushed from a human with the same pleasure he’d receive a flung bucket of ice water.
What can I tell about Nancy Willard? Not much, to be sure. She was elusive, as most people who would rather wonder than be wondered about are. She had an impish smile and she smiled often. In fact, she might be mistaken for totally blind, even as she rode a bike and wore glasses. Hard-core dreamers like her often are. Her yellow hair slipped out of its barrettes often. She rarely seemed to notice but would sometimes shoo a strand back lightly, absently, as one would a fly. She was somehow—and I don’t know how on earth this works—both elusive, clearly a dreamer of dreams AND razor-focused, right in the moment. She was kind. She said Oh that’s marvellous and That’s extraordinary a lot. When she said these things we all knew, without a doubt, that she found them so. She spoke softly and breathlessly, like being stunned by so many things knocked the wind out of her.
I had never—before or since Nancy Willard—known someone who believed so fully in magic, who emanated magic and lived by magic, who so easily and insistently spotted magic in the ordinary every day. To better process this quality I decided she was a witch. A good witch, but a witch nevertheless. The more convinced of this I was the more I realized that burning women at the stake back then for “practicing witchcraft” must have wiped out the best of the best. Nancy Willard invited our class to her house one evening and I watched a bunch of cats sashaying among six foot high sculptures she’d made of angels and cloaked messengers and such. Home-made mobiles of stars and moons and odd suns and maybe even bats swung from the ceiling. I think I’m ready to be a witch too, is what I thought—and then forgot all about it for twenty years until my 3-year old couldn’t even go to the grocery store without putting on his witch costume. I told him the witch I knew had absolutely used her powers for the good of mankind. I agreed, when he prodded, that Nancy Willard was maybe a little bit like Glinda—if you subtracted the pink bling and added a shrewd brain. They both seem to be always on the verge of laughing, I admitted. I told him a spell is awfully like a poem. And I told him I had once watched from behind a bush as the front tire of Nancy Willard’s bicycle lifted into the air. Then, without the bike’s speed slowing at all, the back one drifted up to join it. Both tires levitated so slowly and smoothly I wouldn’t have realized they had, if not for the strip of scenery visible beneath them. And then what? Well then I closed my eyes and shook my head, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. And when I opened them again the bike was rolling along normally, both wheels on the ground.
Tell me again! he would clamour. Tell me about your teacher on the bike that flew so no one saw!
There is no hurry, I guess, to remember the dead. Indeed there is an impulse to slow down each memory, stretching it as far as it will go. Some memories of Nancy Willard I’ve hoarded. I’ve fought here against putting down some that I did. By now the cherry tree outside the window has shed all its blossoms, and its limbs look even perkier for it. A scruffy little bird just launched off one like it was sling-shotted. How on earth do you mourn a person like her? By marvelling, by wondering. I marvel at how, just by being who she was, Nancy Willard changed my world. Or showed me it could resemble a place I had known as a child. That world had not a scrap of money or rank or slander in it. No matter what you lost in that place you held firmly on to your sense of wonder, and to your sense of humour. All inanimate things there were alive, and if you listened to them they would reveal secrets to you. Maybe this reluctance to mourn is only a testament to the graciousness and the vivaciousness and the relentless curiosity of the dead person. Of her capacity to instil hope. When I think of her I think maybe it reduces spirit—it cancels a vote for magic—to suggest a body gone from this earth has to mean anything’s missing at all.
Over the years Nancy Willard sent my sons some magical books in the mail—some written by her, some written by others. And I decided to let those books tell them about her. When I thought about taking them to meet her one day I imagined the three of us huddled in the attic window, watching the green plots and dark buildings and backpacked swarms parting for a fireball to glide through. Hopefully as we waited they would be distracted enough by the busy scenery-in-miniature that I could rest my open hands on each of their soft warm hair–one rough velvet, one more like silk—and a peace would settle in the attic room. The attic room: where I had once been so alone, and fought so furiously against my imagination! Such is the power of Nancy Willard. I envisioned us, too, crouched behind a large tree trunk on campus–me having just sent the boys dashing over to place a tiny metallic-green beetle on the trail. In the long seconds we wait so many shoes will come perilously close to closing over it. But then, the sudden song of brakes. It will be her again, dismounting towards the beetle in a jumble of skirt and cape. She’ll be leaning down to land on an iridescent galaxy.
Once upon a time, I left an attic room in an eastern college library to get lost in Australia, and everyone said: What a shame you’ll regret it all your good grades gone to waste you’re throwing your life away.
But Nancy Willard said: How wonderful. The stars will be so bright.