In this new book of ten exquisite lyric essays, Chapman successfully brings into circling tension lucifer, the lunatic while meditating on the firmament and fragments of light entering her house during her lying-in after the birth of her two children. Deftly she illuminates the chaos, uncertainty, exhaustion, identity ambiguity and imprisonment at home where she is unsure on a day-by-day basis how she will survive what her husband calls ‘this “baby season.”’ Her poetic prose reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts and Hélène Cixous’s Inside and Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of Time; works which capture, like Chapman’s, in lyrical, embodied, affective prose the fragility, joys and despairs of being human. Chapman’s prose though has a precise, resonant, ruminant quality of its own. She observes herself reflexively and sensitively and delicately pens her words. She transports me from the everyday strangeness and restrictiveness of caring for an infant, ‘with one hand, I peel eggs, make coffee, fill a cup with water’ to a capturing of an elusive glimpse of eternity “[a]cross a blue pillow, a strand of my hair catches the sun like a small fissure in glass.” She spirals through this movement again and again immersing me in essay after essay in a continual and profound contemplative praying. Mysteriously her affects travel off the page and the boundaries of her and my subjectivity blur. “I face the sun and close my eyes. I see two small dots, sense capillaries. An immediate, excessive happiness swells. I feel firm and buoyed…. When I write it down the page is much darker.” Her selfhood is being questioned, her previous confident professional identities have disappeared and yet, with her commitment to studying light as it enters her home we occasionally find her perceiving in her darkness, the possibility of other more hopeful futurities yet-to-come.
Chapman captures the ‘betwixt and betweenness’ of lying-in on a plurality of lived planes. On one level, her book is a set of intertwining essays on the topic of motherhood, depicting a darker, doubting alternative to the fantasy of confident, radiant motherhood as she captures her feelings of complexity, ambiguity, diffidence, and vulnerability, “I am anchored here. I thought that as she aged, I would return to myself, but I quickly realize that with a child, I am always in the process of leaving that self behind…. The life I made is unsustainable.” This is honest, vulnerable écriture féminine. The essays are also about close proximity with a husband and infant in bewilderment, marital frustration and resilience, ‘[s]he cried out just as you were leaving for work, and I know that you heard her, and I know you had time for her, but you left anyway. I decided to let you go, not to mention it when I saw you that evening.” On a feminist theoretical plane, Chapman appears to be reworking and extending Kristeva’s philosophical work, Women’s Time; motherhood, abjection, time, poetry as revolution and the subject-in-process and doing so as Cixousian féminine écriture. This is for the most part implicit, though midway through the book she cites Kristeva directly, “[o]ne does not give birth in pain, one gives birth to pain: the child represents it and henceforth settles in, it is continuous.” The essays are also a rare voyage in twenty-first century multi-faith spirituality. Chapman’s writing is identifiable in a western tradition after the Stoics, attention as an attitude, a conscious tension of spirit and after the Jesuits and Buddhists attention as prayer.
Chapman writes in an intellectual, intertextual flow, constantly weaving in texts from which she takes inspiration. She has read so closely that she has seemingly introjected these texts, they have become part of her flesh and blood, her very being–in–the–world. This can make for a frustrating read. I’m not familiar with, for example, Uta Barth, a contemporary conceptual photographer. Sleuthing, I am breath-taken as the internet reveals her work to me. Barth’s multi decade long project, (which won a Macarthur grant), centers on light in her house, working with light, to capture the fleeting and ephemeral and the visual perceptual process; what is on the periphery, unseen and at the limits of our vision. Chapman takes Barth’s light exposures but with words and ‘with a simplicity that rounds back on itself to reveal the other side of simplicity – a process of perception so complex that it’s ineffable. Nor is this abstract academic musing. In every essay liminality is connected to Chapman’s material body and the mundanity of caring for her small children.
I’m similarly unfamiliar with the works of Francis Ponge and learn from Chapman that during World War II Ponge, a poet and essayist, took part in the French Resistance. For Ponge, and for Chapman, language and objects are interchangeable, a focus for metaphysical inquiry, the everyday frustrating, a paradox, present and edifying, absent and inaccessible, real and unreal at once. Ponge’s pine woods are a momentary stay against confusion, just as meditation on light is for Chapman, “[i]t’s comforting to be reminded of the unknown because the known, all that can be perceived, is always and already a disaster, even as it is beautiful and purpose-giving.” Chapman displays an ability to stay with her present attention wherever it takes her to bear the moment, the darkness, the light and to keep living; an example of the poet John Keat’s negative capability at its finest. She waits patiently to allow the stirring out of nothingness of creative new thoughts, content with Keats’s half-knowledges.
In To Limn / Lying In Chapman extends my vision, my heart, deepens my breath. Illuminating the liminal, with strange affectual returns and recognitions, I circle repeatedly in her essays between the difficulties of everyday mothering and the ecstasy of the cosmos emerging “on paper tinged with plum” and with a baby “awake now and screaming.”
Katie Beavan, a Brit-American, earned her doctorate from the University of the West of England after a long career in business. Her dissertation was underpinned with Cixous’s écriture féminine. She teaches at New York University and is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer. She is a candidate in the MFA Program in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa University and performed some of her work at the Naropa Summer Writing Program in 2019. She also wrote, produced and performed a one-woman play “Harvey’s Phallus: Where Is My Pussy Hat?” at the Quick Center for the Arts, Fairfield, Connecticut in 2018. She writes and performs on ageing, feminism, grief, liminality and acceptance of the other, including the other within.