Leap by Terry Tempest WilliamsTerry Tempest Williams
Pantheon Books ($25)

by Juliet Patterson

“To objectify is to destroy," poet Hayden Carruth says, arguing that the best of poetry is always in the deepest sense, subjective. A poet "in the act of love," he continues, "existing purely and in subjectivity, in yearning and anguish, will transmute his private reference into generally accessible knowledge, his private feeling into universal subjective feeling, and he will do it without thought."

In Terry Tempest Williams' Leap, subjectivity is all. The subject in this case is Hieronymous Bosch's fifteenth-century masterpiece, The Garden of Delights, a medieval triptych housed in the Prado Museum, which Williams encountered on a trip to Madrid in 1992. As a child, Williams slept beneath the painting's images of Paradise and Hell—reproductions of the right and left panels hung above her bed tacked to a bulletin board--yet she never knew of the existence of the central painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," until she stood, stunned, before the original. "The body. / The body of the triptych, " she writes. "My body. / The bodies of the center panel, this panel of play and discovery, of joyful curiosities cavorting with Eros, is not only a surprise to me, but a great mystery."

So begins a seven-year pilgrimage for Terry Tempest Williams into the landscape of Heironymous Bosch, a hallucinatory and strange world of sensuality, which leads her in and out of the heaven and hell of her (and our) own natural worlds: "Open and close. Open and close. Heironymous Bosch has painted, as wings, Paradise and Hell. The body is a portrait of Earthly Delights. The wings close again. Open now, slowly, with each viewer's breath the butterfly quivers, Heaven and Hell quiver, the wings are wet and fragile, only the body remains stable."

With such poetic intensity, Williams carries us into the world of Bosch, uncovering connections between his vision, the world it mirrors, and contemporary life. Like a naturalist in the field, Williams watches the painting as though it were alive; in one passage she uses binoculars to identify birds in The Garden, as well as all the fruits, flowers and human figures ecstatic and erotic. Williams gives herself over to the experience completely, even writing from within the painting's wildly inventive landscapes.

Those familiar with Williams previous books (most notably, Refuge, 1991) will recognize her now trademark intimacy with the natural world as one that guides a deep moral presence, remarkably balanced in intellect and emotion. Leap accomplishes this in a kind of meditative-exhalation, a concordance of world immensity with an individual and intimate depth of being:

I begin to feel my own roots in El Bosco's soil and find my own arms, one, two, transforming into three and four, as many arms as there are in the world branching out, with splayed hands, our own hands the branches of trees reaching out for a living truth that will vivify our blood, blood knowledge.

In a language that is deeply lyrical and critically intelligent, Williams's narrative moves through the worlds of the triptych. In "Paradise," Williams recounts her childhood raised in the orthodoxy of the Mormon church; the section on "Hell" allows her to address her concerns for the destruction of the environment; in "Earthly Delights," she begins to reconcile dualities and finds faith in a present life on Earth. Finally, in "Restoration," Williams' sees The Garden of Delights in the process of its restoration and learns something not only about the origin of its artistic vision, but the beginnings of her own.

In many ways, Leap is a commentary on art: an examination of the relationship between artist and viewer and a plea for a renewal of the culture's interaction with artistic beauty. But Leap is about many things; art, history, religion, faith and love. It is a search for the place where faith, creativity and passion converge. It is a sensuous celebration of our relationship to world and self. It is also a critical examination of the current state of world; the destruction of the environment, the corporatization of religion and prevalence of fear in our culture. But perhaps, ultimately, Leap is book about risk and self-transformation.

The title of the book takes its inspiration from a W. H. Auden poem entitled "Leap Before You Look." Williams has remarked in an interview, "Some may see this as an act of madness. I see it as the sovereignty of a soul that comes when we bow to our own creative impulses . . . To leap before we look, to follow our instincts, our intuitions, this is the pathway to change. Safety is an illusion like Paradise." In the simplest terms, this signifies a kind of a spiritual politicism, a nonviolent anarchism on Williams' part; at least as a means. In other words, she will share in spirituality far more than she will dispute.

"This is my living faith, an active faith," Williams writes, "a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn. dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak . . ." With this lucidity and grace, Williams allows us finally "to seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers," and pass into the purity of spiritual existence. Leap is a remarkable and wondrous book, written by a writer at the height of her considerable powers. One can't help but feel that for Williams writing this book was not only an act of transformation, but also of love. The act of reading it requires, and is, nothing less.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000