Sunday, August 2, 2020

Heather Sweeney : To Limn/Lying In, by J’Lyn Chapman

[Pank Books], 2020

In To Limn/Lying In, a prismatic collection of lyrical, personal essays, J’Lyn Chapman reflexively examines ephemerality and the emergency that exists within, and without, each of us. Here, light is the fulcrum; light is the event.  The light expands, breaks, breathes and transforms, as do the bodies and lives that inhabit these incandescent pages.  This pivotal and incantatory question arrives and re-emerges throughout the work in different incarnations:  “Could light be responsible for the writing of light and, therefore, also its transformation?” (10).

These contemplative and poetic essays read as a series of meditations that draw their inspiration from the photographs of Uta Barth that explore the sunlight as it streams into her home; here, Chapman expounds: “Uta Barth says that the photographs she took of light in her home were “detached from narrative, detached from history, detached from identity.” I wanted this: the sun cast upon a white wall in an empty room” (19).

As a whole, the work gathers a spectrum of fragments from the notebooks of Francis Ponge which were drafted during the German occupation of France, Charlotte Bronte’s strange and obscure novel, a failed family winter solstice adventure, an art installation that translates Beethoven into Morse code, and the borrowed language of poets, philosophers and saints. Ekphrastically, the lexicons and energies of these sources web and cohere with the author’s contemplations of life, and life-giving experiences.

TLLI begins with a poetic essay, “Firmament: Postpartum Fugue.”  Wherein “One morning, birds and light are inextricable. The blue firmament is full/of grey clouds with luminous, metallic underbellies” (7). These sections accrue as their own firmament, and reach back in time wherein we witness the childhood memory of headlights and branch shadows inside a “vaporous dream.” 

I found myself pausing between sections to recollect myself the way one might while viewing an assemblage of striking paintings in a museum. For example, I long considered and sat with this question: “Which prayers go unanswered, and what does the dark hide from flame?” (25).

Within these pages, the reader also spends time with the author and her family in domestic space where we witness “the television’s red blister” and “the oven’s blue glow.” This is where the private space of home meets the metaphysical, in a sense, the universal experience of isolation that often comes with pregnancy and new motherhood.

In what will soon be a germinal essay entitled, “Consenting to the Emergency/the Emergent as Consensuality,” Chapman captures a rare, raw and honest examination of the body as it is enveloped by the transformation of pregnancy:  “In this sixth month of my pregnancy, I began to feel dread that at once seemed to descend on me and rise from within, which is to say I was immersed in it.  Papules flared on my torso in clusters of three.  The gross math of Une and its swelling heat.  I was disgusted, so I was disgusting…” (42).

Chapman merges with and is simultaneously submerged by the light, writing and motherhood as both a life-giving and all-consuming entities. She unveils what we are hungry for and what sustains us: “The mother is made for the child’s mouth, but the child’s mouth is made for the world” (21).

The intimate essay “Day and Night, Night and Day,” contemplates the disorientation of time and its ephemeral mutations: “The baby has made the divisions of night and day incomprehensible.  Some days, I can keep time straight.  I know when it is morning.  I feel I have slept through something like the night and I have woken into something like the day” (35).

In “Dark Grove, Shining,” we begin with pervading duality: “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.” (23).  This particular essay calls attention to shadows, what separates us from others and what separates us from reflections of ourselves.  “In the glass of the backdoor, my daughter identifies our shadows.  I tell her, no, these are our reflections...In the image, she does not recognize herself” (25). This points to the timeless question of what separates the “I” from the “other.”

This luminous collection highlights small moments in time that can often be overlooked.  It provides careful attention to the moment because the moment is all we have: It is how light can transform our personal space and how it is perceived by it in an expansive, revelatory way: “And this is metaphor: I begin to think of god as light and if not light then/the small white moths that float above the grass.  Because they are beautiful, because they barely exist at all” (21).

Heather Sweeney, she/her, lives in San Diego where she writes, teaches and does visual art.  Her chapbooks include Just Let Me Have This (Selcouth Station Press) and Same Bitch, Different Era: The Real Housewives Poems (above/ground press).  Her collections, Dear Marshall, Language is Our Only Wilderness (Spuyten Duyvil Press) and Call Me California (Finishing Line Press) are forthcoming.

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