Photography by Heather Maxwell Hall
“I have spent so long thinking of light, and I have done this thinking in the solitude of midnight or in the sadness of early morning. In the absence of light, I think about it. So darkness resides within the limning.”
So writes J’Lyn Chapman in “Dark Grove, Shining,” one of the ten collected essays that make up To Limn / Lying In. The collection contains lyrical and intellectual essays, which taken as a whole, are a study of light—actual and figurative—as much as they are a study of womanhood.
With that source, light, behind her, Chapman gazes through various lenses—artistic, literary, philosophical, and even scientific—to capture her very personal subjects of pregnancy, motherhood, and family. She examines “artist Uta Barth’s photographs of the sun as it enters her home and the poet Francis Ponge’s notebooks kept during the German occupation of France.”* Yet, Chapman’s analyses of her situation as a new mother feel urgent and present and don’t veer much into the historical. The essayist also brings to her essaying, or searching, religious studies to help her examine from several angles the fraught existence of living “occupied” with young children.
The light, itself, comes first—before the subject of motherhood is introduced to the reader. It was on the second day, Chapman reminds us in the collection’s first essay, “Firmament: Postpartum Fugue,” when “God created the firmament,” a heavenly dome separating “the sacred from the profane.” It is “a shelter where we narrow our concerns to the private, the self and family,” says Chapman, snug beneath her Colorado sky. This is the domestic play-stage the essayist chooses to light and reveal to us herself and children. And so, we readers sit and stay awhile, and watch as the light dawns and sets—and even eclipses—on this young family. Whether you believe as the Bible says that the firmament represents God’s sovereignty—or our own in our own houses—Chapman writes: “The firmament is a mirror by which we fall in love with our intact bodies.”
Reading this, I, a mother myself, thought: Yes, mustn’t we fall in love with our own bodies? Don’t we have to fall in love with ourselves—we mothers, especially? To entreat and endure childbirth and young motherhood? Young motherhood without the old fashioned “luxury,” anymore, of “lying in,” postpartum. Of breastfeeding, Chapman writes: “I weary of pinching myself into children’s mouths.”
In the collection’s strongest moments, Chapman’s exploratory essays stay grounded, revealing the everyday experiences of young motherhood’s fugues (and fug). My favorite images feature the author exploring the razor’s edge between light and dark, positivity and negativity, care and danger, in the days just after giving birth:
“Before sunrise, when the baby would wake me or when I was awake anticipating her cries, I would go to her. In the rocking chair, I nursed her with my head slung back, trying to maintain the film of sleep while remaining careful not to drop her. Some nights, some early mornings, I sensed the dark as a threatening presence…What blots out the light, what shines behind the dark thought?” Chapman writes in “Dark Grove, Shining.” And the reader is reminded again that where there is light and miracles there is also shadow and the mundane—or worse.
Chapman is expert at excavating and examining this liminal and dangerous place the light can’t quite reach. On the other end of the spectrum of darkness to goodness, Chapman’s exploration of the miraculous is also interesting—if at times the narrative threads wend a little too far from the central narrative. (Though the essays work well singly, the collection as a whole is even stronger, for the many threads and repetitions, forming a larger, more complete universe.) A witnessing of a solar eclipse with her child, for example, veers into a study of the miraculous: the biblical and the celestial (including the far-away aurora borealis)—so many mysteries as to make my head spin.
But maybe that’s life for you, for all of us on this spinning planet under the firmament. We try again and again to illuminate and keep a safe, even sacred, space for ourselves and those we love.
*quote from back cover summary
by J’Lyn Chapman
PANK Books $18.00