Book Review: 'Dawn Light,' by Diane Ackerman

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By Wendy Smith
Sunday, September 20, 2009


Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day

By Diane Ackerman

Norton. 240 pp. $24.95

Diane Ackerman wants us to slow down and pay attention. Human beings are "creatures stricken by meaning, afflicted with purpose," she laments; that's why it's essential to stop and savor those instants when "time suddenly snags on a simple Wow!"

It's easy to live in the moment when you're immersed in Ackerman's glorious prose, studded with arresting phrases and breathtakingly beautiful images. A prizewinning poet, she also lavishes her lyrical gifts on books about science, nature and history, such as her 2007 bestseller, "The Zookeeper's Wife."

She chose dawn as the subject of her new book because, she writes in the prologue, it's the beginning of the day, "a fresh start" with cleansed vision before "familiar routines and worries charge in." Moving across the seasons from spring dawns in Palm Beach, Fla., through winter sunrises in Ithaca, N.Y., her book abounds in sensuous snapshots -- dawn "wells up, as if the ground were oozing light," or can be seen "percolating among the vegetables" -- as the author flies through a plethora of subjects. Seizing the day does not, apparently, require staying in one place.

Thinking of Aurora, goddess of the dawn, leads Ackerman to consider the respective merits of metaphor and science. The planet Venus, she notes, was called "deer of the dawn" in Hebrew, while Roman astronomers dubbed it Lucifer (light-bearing), a name the Bible transferred to a fallen angel, "son of the morning." A glimpse of a baby rabbit at sunrise reminds the author that Eostri, the Celtic goddess of dawn and source of the words East and Easter, was always accompanied by a rabbit; "as Christianity borrowed from the old pagan religions, the goddess Easter became the holiday, complete with benign Easter rabbits."

Ackerman roams far afield, and sometimes the links to her ostensible subject are strained, albeit delightful: A glimpse of starlings flocking at dawn segues into a visit with a friend's hilarious talking bird; the morning light catches a sycamore tree shedding bark in "parchment scrolls reminding me of Archimedes' lost journals." She always returns, however, to her central preoccupation, the need to pause amid life's hurly-burly forward motion and quietly appreciate where we are right now.

In some of the book's loveliest passages, she points to Claude Monet as the painter of this magical space. "Let me show you the transient beauty of absolutely any moment," the author imagines Monet saying, words that she could easily have uttered herself. Like Monet, she aims "to capture the intimate drama of seeing something for the first time," and she makes the familiar strange when she describes rain boots as "sap from rubber trees attached to the feet," or reminds us of the oddly varied meanings of the word "wake" (emerging from sleep, a party for the dead, the trail behind a moving ship), all of which "meet in a past nearly beyond imagining, in the Old Norse word vaka, 'an opening in the ice.' "

Highly charged prose like this runs the risk of overstatement, and Ackerman doesn't always avoid it ("birdsong doesn't lie," "it's only in death that we're fully sensual"). We forgive her these lapses; they're much less frequent than sections that employ the precision of a naturalist and scientist to convey the wonder of a poet. We learn about the structure of crystals and the composition of rust as she meditates on harmony, decay and serenity. Rhapsodic effusions that might otherwise seem facile gain depth from a somber undercurrent of loss, pain and mortality. The 60-year-old author mentions in passing her pinched neck nerves, bad knee and several brushes with death; she dreams of her dead mother and pulls us up short with an unelaborated reference to "the looming death of a spouse."

Ackerman accepts these sorrows as woven into the fabric of existence. "I love being part of the saga of life on earth," she writes, "and both suffering and change feature large in that adventure." Yet the impressions that linger after closing her book are not of suffering but of joy, not of change, but of the flow of incident halted, over and over, by the masterful hand of an artist who sketches with tender words the small miracles of a vast universe. "Just show up," she urges us. "Presence is always a present, a gift." Her gift to us is the sheer pleasure of seeing the world through her loving eyes.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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