Friday, June 7, 2013

My Noise on Terry Temple Williams' When Women Were Birds

Frankly, I don't know how to describe my feelings about this book. I knew how I felt at the beginning. I fell in love with the poetic and philosophical first steps, the empty pages reflecting the silence of the journals of the author's mother. How daring, how true, I thought. How whimsical. What an adventure this is going to be. And in a way, Williams does take me into some epopee. From one chapter to the next, I don't know where I am going to go or where I am going to land. While the language is always clean and simple--and when at its best, pure-- the author's mind travels from the abstract and complex to the tactile and familiar, and back. There are descriptions of nature, of difficult and/or colorful personalities as well as references to thinkers like Barthes and Cixous. It is a bit like a buffet of tastes and ideas. It reminds me somewhat of Rousseau and his mind wanderings, for When Women Were Birds is also impregnated with ecology. Unlike Rousseau, however, Williams puts her money where her mouth is.

Although it is presented with numbered chapters, its eclectic content reads like a journal. And I wish it had been called so. When Women Were Birds, A Journal by Terry Tempest Williams. Or: When Women Were Birds, A Mind Voyage by Terry Tempest Williams. When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice leads to confusion. I'll tell you why in a moment.

Here and there, Williams attempts to unify the book with two basic themes: giving women a voice; extracting the meaning of her mother's empty journals. In her attempts to give women a voice, she fails because that's not what the book is about. Furthermore, these returns, as in the recapitulations from the movements of a sonata (and she refers to music as well), are occasionally discordant. Her variations are not so much variations as they are separations.

This is a book not so much about giving a voice to others as it is about re-defining one's own. Her own. In her attempt to fill out her mother's blank pages, to give these pages a reason to be, she has spent time in the desert, somewhat lost. This is a book about seeking, not finding. We all face empty pages, existential pain. And Birds is ultimately a treaty about existential pain--albeit accompanied with a very real, brain related angst, as the author explains. Even the title reflects a wound, a damaged --or broken?--wing.

Although the prose is in itself highly pleasurable as well as profound for the most part, I wouldn't recommend this to the confused person trying to find her way and her voice, for this might confuse her further. Like the bird who skips here and there, flies from one tree to the next, sings now and stays quiet a minute later, the writing is graceful, beautiful scattering. But it is still scattering.W

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