To Limn / Lying In, J’Lyn Chapman’s most recent book, is quietly powerful, building momentum through careful resonance. In the opening essay, titled “Firmament: Postpartum Fugue,” she writes, “The firmament is not infinite; it is the screen on which the infinite manifests.” Then, a bit later, speaking to her children, “Now that you are here, under this firmament, through no choice of your own, you should know the life I gave you is unsustainable.” These dichotomies—of mortality and immortality, infinity and finiteness—recur throughout the book, alongside light and shadow, heaven and earth, motherhood and childhood, you and I, and with this spiraling structure, Chapman skillfully exposes a complex simplicity undergirding mundane life. There is a meditative quality to this profound collection of lyric essays; nothing is rushed or forced.
Now fairly out of fashion in modern cultures, “lying in” was once a requisite period of new motherhood. It entails exactly what it sounds like: housebound (traditionally bedbound) days or weeks, during which the mother has a chance to rest and recover from the exacting toll of childbirth, as well as bond deeply with her baby. If this sounds a bit over the top, consider that the woman’s body may be sutured after ripping or being cut, that she is bleeding, that breastfeeding—while among the most natural of instincts—is anything but easy to begin. Hormones are plummeting and surging. Babies, as Chapman cleverly informs, have “no regard” for the “luminaries that divided night from day.” Despite this, it can also be a time of great attunement. For Chapman, this period of rest is one in which she is forced to “find the house interesting if I were to stay in it” and so she channels Uta Barth and says “the light shows me my home is an ambient field . . . I see the light first and then that which it illuminates.”
The book is confessional, but intellectually so. The life of the mind splits to make way for the life of the body. In this transformed state, something like spirit, in the form of light, can be seen. Chapman’s limning of motherhood has a profound effect on the world she exists in, and her careful illumination is captured by precise prose that insists on brilliance while at the same time disregarding it. “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,” she writes in “Dark Grove, Shining.” One has the feeling, while reading To Limn / Lying In, of piecing together a puzzle. There is a larger image that arises from the whole, but each piece contains its own essence.
In the final essay, “Nothing Solid Is Really Happening,” Chapman parses light: “almost copper or brass. A mistake to call it gold”; “The light is sober. . . . It grows more warm, creamier, absorbed”; “fire-colored light on facing wall.” She has abandoned her earlier mission to avoid figurative language when describing light and perhaps because of this, her experience of light deepens. The essay paints an impressionistic image, of a mother writing and of her connection to her children, strokes of color building a scene: “Grey light for the day. Yellow parsley in the garden path, slender bows of raspberry arcing at the border.” The light may not be solid, but for Chapman, it is an anchor, tethering her to the physical world.
If all this sounds a bit cerebral, allow me to refocus on the bodies that Chapman deftly weaves into her narratives. In To Limn / Lying In, the body is the vessel for navigating the outer world, and its job is singularly important. “I close my eyes. There are no sounds from the house. No hum, no creak,” Chapman writes. Later, “our feet smell of sap.” The acuity of senses transcends the dichotomy of inner/outer, self/other, most especially in the body of the mother: “The baby nurses and then sleeps, his wet mouth falling open and releasing the elongated nipple. . . . I let the light warm me.” This dynamic interplay of senses, this insistent return to bodies and light, guides the book. To Limn / Lying In doesn’t contain a narrative in the traditional sense of beginning, middle, and end, but Chapman’s language works like pointillist brush strokes: details build the larger image. One cannot exist without the other.
To Limn / Lying In constructs an atmosphere (an ambient field, if you will) into which Chapman evokes other thinkers. Though the life of the mother here is constrained by its new identity—“I feel confined to some spaces and barred from others”—the connection to the outside world, however tenuous, remains. Throughout the book, she engages with these other thinkers—Francis Ponge, Uta Barth, Roland Barthes, and Naomi Klein among them—the way light engages with objects: fleeting, illuminating and then darkening, aware of the constant shifts of time. In “Everything That Is Illuminated Becomes a Light,” Chapman details a long exchange, taking place over the course of two months, between herself and her friend Ella, centered around The Book of Miracles, “a sixteenth-century German manuscript that illustrates apocalyptic events and meteorological phenomena.” She writes, “Ella understands that language and symbols constitute miracles but that miracles are also something else entirely, not the least of which is a center of gravity around which people cluster.” This mutual understanding seems an accurate description of what Chapman is urging toward in her own writing. There is, here in these sentences and in the book and in the world at large, an ineffableness. It can be captured in the mind, on the page, in conversation, and yet it is as fickle as light.
At once raw and erudite, this slender book of essays packs a profound wallop. I read it straight through one afternoon during my children’s naptime, out in the backyard where the light filters through oak leaves and dapples our scant, mossy lawn. When I closed the cover, I looked out over the familiar scene. But something had changed. To Limn / Lying In creates a space in which the known world might be re-seen. Each page is a revelation.
About the Reviewer
Sara Rauch is the author of What Shines from It: Stories. Her writing has also appeared in Paper Darts, Hobart, Split Lip, So to Speak, Bitch Media, Bustle, Tupelo Quarterly, and more. She lives with her family in Massachusetts. Find more at www.sararauch.com.