Originally Published: November 12, 2015 8:19 p.m.
It is hard to know just what to call Terry Tempest Williams's beautiful book, "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice." It is all at once a poem, a memoir, a meditation, a mystery, an exploration of being, and a song of self-or of selves. And it is more than all of these things.
A week before she died, Williams's mother tells her that she's leaving Terry her journals, to be opened only after she's is gone. When Williams chooses the first of the clothbound journals kept perfectly aligned on three shelves, she finds that its pages are blank, so, too the second and the third, and so on. In fact, all of the journals on the three shelves are blank. "The blow of her blank journals," writes Williams, "was like a second death." And so begins the mystery of understanding the meaning of those empty journals, as the author explores that and other mysteries of her own, filling those pages that her mother left blank.
The meaning of her mother's blank pages changes continually as the author examines aspects of her mother's life - and her own, showing countless variations: "My Mother's Journals are paper tombstones" becomes "an act of defiance," becomes "a transgression, becomes, "a scandal of white," becomes "a harmony of silence," because they "are an expanding and collapsing universe each time they are opened and closed."
William's language remains lyrical and sensual throughout: "In love, the tongue writes wet words upon the skin in a shining script where letters disappear like invisible ink, leaving only sensation." She can be funny, though, as when she recounts a time she is marched to the principal's office for teaching first graders whale song in a darkened room. She is told that they had suspicions that she was an environmentalist when she and her husband traveled to Alaska "and did not carry a gun!"
Reading "When Women Were Birds" in many ways is like holding a kaleidoscope up to the light and being awestruck over the lovely ever-changing patterns - except that the patterns stay with you and call up patterns of your own.
- Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator