Transmuting the invisible into prose; Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard. Harper & Row. 177 pp. $12.95.
Nearly 10 years has passed since Annie Dillard seemed to walk full-blown into the company of major American writers with her first book, ''Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.'' Her approach to the natural world, to the inner life of the spirit, and to prose itself are in many ways so old as to be new. Like the poet George Herbert, she seemed to notice the signature of God in anything that caught her attention. Her acquaintance with the natural sciences seemed to provide endless metaphors for a prose that is as baroque as a spinet partita - or as modern biology itself.
A few years later she published ''Holy the Firm,'' an unconvincing attempt in the same style to make peace with the problem of suffering.
Now Harper & Row has issued ''Teaching a Stone to Talk,'' a collection of short pieces which originally appeared in magazines. ''An Expedition to the Pole'' and ''Life on the Rocks'' are prose meditations on the wisdom and beauty of the natural world, from the Arctic Circle to the Galapagos Islands, and on nature's way of straining our capacity to appreciate it.
''Aces and Eights,'' the last piece in the book, seems a rather thin attempt to say some very important things about childhood, parenthood, and growing up, which have often been thought but rarely well expressed.
Throughout all these pieces, Annie Dillard is dancing around the same thing: ''It is for the Pole of Relative Inaccessiblity (the Absolute) I am searching, and have been searching, in the mountains and along the seacoasts for years. The aim of this expedition is, as Pope Gregory put it in his time, 'To attain to somewhat of the unencompassed light, by stealth, and scantily.' ''
Quite an ambition for any artist. Bach, it could be argued, succeeds more than any other in suggesting the ''absolute'' in pure music. Some painters reflect it - Leonardo, for instance, in some of the drawings that were intended as quick studies for large canvases. But for a writer the problems are more subtle and perhaps insurmountable.
Dillard is well grounded in the literature of what is usually called mysticism. In our time, only Arthur Koestler has written a more convincing description of mystical experience. Yet she seems coy or unwilling to admit the limitation that language itself brings to her writer's expeditions after the ''absolute.''
When she writes, ''My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits - spirits trapped, perhaps, by my own refusal to call them fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at the time . . . ,'' one is reminded of Meister Eckhart, Boehme, Blake. Yet on the next page she dodges the crux of the problem after affirming her faith: ''There are angels in those fields, and, I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. What this all means about perception, or language, or angels, or my own sanity, I have no idea.''
In fact, Dillard has many ideas, and if she really is in the dark about the implications of her spiritual perceptions it may be that they have been eclipsed by the light show of ideas that usually goes on in her writer's mind.
Dillard has run up against the inadequacy of language itself to deal in a satisfying way with ultimate cause, since all writing is basically metaphor and the nature of language dualistic and fragmentary. That which has fascinated her for so long defies being adequately conveyed in metaphor.
Throughout the book Annie Dillard seems to be kicking against the limitations of her own style and of language in general to convey what she wants to share with us. She is one of a handful of our most important writers, who has chosen a task that is worthy of her talent; a task that is as difficult as ''teaching a stone to talk.''