“There is a beautiful moment in this meditation on nature, language, and motherhood which made me fall in love with it—the narrator writes of reading Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, in bed, the summer after her daughter was born, which moves into Brontë’s fascination with etymology, which reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of writing, Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” What more can I say? An urgent and beautiful piece of writing the present-tense and the body that references Julia Kristeva, Francis Ponge and Etel Adnan—what’s not to love?”
-Kate Zambreno, 2018 Nonfiction Judge
Dark Grove, Shining
2018 Nonfiction Contest Runner-up
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.
There is a different kind of darkness in carrying a child—to have been the space of so much that can never be seen, to be the site of entry and then leaving. (“The flash that bedazzles me,” Julia Kristeva writes of delivery, “when I confront the abyss between what was mine and is henceforth but irreparably alien.”) Through the countless ultrasounds, I saw their bodies when they were in me. Buried under those translucent layers of darkness—skin, fat, bones, and viscera—sound we could not hear made an image of what we could not see: guts, limbs, the edges of the heart, moth-like and galloping. The light in the shadow of my body.
But more than imaging, the rhetorical gesture of apostrophe revealed difference and, therefore, existence as when I called out the other body’s movements, said, “I feel you.”
As the probe slipped over the mound of my belly, I thought of the way the moon can sometimes appear so clearly from earth, how the image on the screen seemed like a detail of its surface. The technician gave form to what I saw—here are the hemispheres of the brain, chambers of the heart, penis and scrotum (“the snail,” she said), labia (a peach).
For the installation piece, Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), Katie Paterson translated Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code and employed amateur radio operators to bounce the sonata off the moon. Because “the moon reflects only part of the information back,” Paterson explains, and the rest “is absorbed in its shadows or lost in its craters,” the sonata that returned is visually full of holes of various sizes. They take the jagged shape of clouds. In the installation, the score, translated from Morse code back into music, is played on an automated Disklavier piano, emphasizing the absence of an agent.
Like an ancient coin unearthed, the cohesion and integrity of the piece are degraded. The music seems to falter in its disappearances. It sounds as if it is both an attempt to play the music for the first time and music worn from too much playing. Ghostly and childish, decayed and naïve. As the lesser light of the moon is allowed its triumph in crescendo, the actual moon’s shadows swallow the sound. And our ear, habituated by our familiarity with the piece, is never satisfied.
What information returns from the surface, what is absorbed in the craters?
On the winter solstice, we take the children to the reservoir. Ice encrusts the shore like candle wax and blows off the water, suspended in air. We cannot see through it to the other shore. The day is brilliantly cold. The children cry. We leave after ten minutes. At home, I make spicy soup. We light three candles and turn down the lights. Sitting around the table, we each offer gratitude for the winter. Cool air, the crunch of snow underfoot, an invitation to interiority, ladders and candy corn, silence, white sky, empty cornfields and their furrows full with snow, giant squirrels’ nests revealed by bare branches.
Asleep in his room, the baby is swaddled and seed shaped at the center of night. He is our offering to darkness so that we might have our three points of light.
The clumsy ritual merely winds a cord around darkness. Long before the shortest day of the year, the days had already been dark. Dark and long, long and thin. When I recall this time, I feel the flat, hungry night best so that in November’s sudden darkness that comes with changing the clocks I did not despair because I did not know when one day ended and another began. We were either asleep or awake, either hungry or eating..
An attraction to darkness threatens to exceed its boundaries (I think of how in the summer the sedum outgrows its pot, first dripping over the edge then sending up erect flower stalks the color of summer itself, chartreuse. Or how one afternoon, earwigs gush out of the joints of the children’s sandbox into pine needles and soft sand so that I can hardly crush them with the plastic shovel). I sublimate it: double-veiled eye at night, stretch and project the senses, curl into the body to keep safe, fumble, deepen in sleep the breath. All that dark allows in its hiding.
The summer after my daughter is born, I read Charlotte Brontë’s strange novel Villette in bed. At the start of the second chapter, we learn, by her own admission, that our narrator Lucy Snowe is an “overheated and discursive imagination.” Two urges pull her in opposite directions: she witholds herself so that she may watch others and remain intact, while at the same time her desire flares. Her reserve draws to her the ghosts she sees or her unchecked thoughts invent them. She’s bored, neurotic, and annoying, and in her I recognize myself.
“A cold name she must have,” Brontë explained to her publishers, “partly, perhaps, on the ‘lucus a non lucendo’ principle—partly on that of the ‘fitness of things,’ for she has about her an external coldness.” The “Lucus a non lucendo principle” refers to any etymological contradiction. In Latin, lucus means dark grove, but it is derived from luco, the Latin verb to shine. Another example is the Old English root blæc in black, which produces both “absolute darkness” and “glittering, pale.” Lucus a non lucendo is a neurosis in meaning that sustains it nonetheless.
One evening, when I am pregnant with my daughter, I sit under the blue spruce in our yard and watch from below as my husband and our neighbor play chess on the back porch. They forget or never know I am here. In the dark, I pray to the night and the mosquito-incinerating torches: separate me from the dark cloud attached umbilically to me.
Which prayers go unanswered, what does the dark hide from flame?
There are shadows, which are the shape of objects, and there are reflections, which are the colors of objects. Both are doubles, projections, the way the world makes its way into us. The way material exceeds its boundaries.
In the glass of the backdoor, my daughter identifies our shadows. I tell her, no, these are our reflections. A shadow is dark and a reflection is blue and brown and yellow, I say. I show her a video of a walk we took last fall. As the sun began its dip below the horizon, our shadows stretched out long in front of us. In the video, she lifts and stomps her feet to free herself of this dark viscosity. See, I say, pointing to the screen, that is a shadow. In the image, she does not recognize herself.
A shadow is a darkening. She is an object that stands between light and a surface. She is a threshold. To produce a space of darkness is to be bathed in light. To pull the light away is to see the world clearly but in the shape of her.
I once felt that I could produce more light but never fully eliminate the darkness. And that the light and shadow inside exchanged with the light and shadow outside. I felt them circulate within me. I felt the baby turning. And when I felt her, I pressed back so that for a moment, she was in the palm of my hand. It was like reciprocity, a delineation between our bodies marked by the sensation of pressure.
I’m not talking about the dark room, which, I assure my daughter, nourishes our sleep.
I am talking about the heavy thought, the one that makes the shadow grow up from my belly to my throat and spread like a mantel over my shoulders.
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. I feared something might brush against my foot. I imagined I saw a dim, smoky cloud floating near the ceiling. As soon as her mouth fell away from the nipple, I laid her down and retreated.
What blots out the light, what shines behind the dark thought?
Now it’s late spring. The fruit trees lost their blooms, the lilacs crumbled. The perfectly round peony buds unfurled, the puckered roses dilated. The sky is blue like flax that dissolves in the wind then reappears in morning. Every day, we come back to night and what it shelters. I think of myself as huddling in a shadow that grows smaller until equinox. This is not a metaphor. I drag the children in here with me, but they are kin to flame and throw themselves at it. This morning, we seemed to laugh at the same thing at the same time, and a possibility opened itself: being here together.
And now the evening brings the smell of soil, grass, and, on certain breezes, manure from feedlots north of here. And still I write of light by darkness. I write by proprioceptive habit of what light has revealed—space—so that I can write of light in its absence. But I cannot stop—the pen is the hand I drag along the wall, the hesitant step or the part of me that flickers out probing a space for another presence.
When did I stop sleeping? When did the imp of my sleeplessness transform from baby to mind? I can smell its presence in the grass, in the rainstorm. It feels like noon heat. I waited in bed for the baby’s cries, at which point I nursed her back to sleep, and then sat under the trees begging the god of night to give me some. By dawn, exhausted, I returned to my room silently, trying to refuse the sun’s light but hearing the song it pulls from birds. I cannot refuse it all. The baby, sealed in her dark room with white noise, also belongs to the world that light awakens, and so I woke to her cries, bleached by the scorch of my fatigue.
Attention excludes nothing. I think about how when I write, the words I cannot find to describe what I mean are the words I have decided, long before and often unconsciously, to never say.
But I will not dredge the valleys of self. So much is revealed by the body’s sensation of a breeze. “Creativity breaks through identity,” Mei-mei Berssenbrugge writes, “and my awareness flows through transparency as spontaneous synchronous phenomena experienced with others today.” We open the windows after the rain. Our neighbor plays his trumpet. Cars pass the house, splash water, rev their engines. Crickets chirp. To the east, thunder claps. Pressure flares behind my forehead. I chew the nail of my left pinky.
Eventually, Francis Ponge resigns “Poem Struck in Afterthought.” Or he delays the pleasure of finishing. One senses an erotic heightening in which a moment withholds the language with which Ponge might penetrate it. The sky becomes a place on which to project the excess of that which cannot be said. This eros of excess and delay feels like a consequence of the ineffable, the veiled, the obscured, and despite all of that, he will not say, although the sky is saturated with it, the word fascism.
“To think without the world, is that possible? Is thinking more material than we know?” The answer is, at best, inconclusive: “There are affinities that escape our perception: the unknown is an immense reality.” The writing of Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog is not the drafting of Ponge’s “La Mounine,” but it does not disguise its thinking, which, like Ponge’s and Berssenbrugge’s thinking, is inextricable from the experience of the body living in the world. When reading this book, it’s strangely 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.
The life I made is unsustainable. This fact saturates my perception of the world, and the world reinforces it.
What shape can give this churning of light and darkness form? How to bear it, how to keep living?
I am too tired to think, but feeling comes easily. But even feeling passes through a net of language. Or feeling is a kind of pore in the shape of language. I feel and I make this thing, this fickle but steady thing, out of language. My mind wanders not to feeling but to the created thing when the children scream at the breakfast table or when I read to them the long book about the dog that is transformed into a gruesome creature by a witch or when someone tells me what to do or when in a flash I recognize the deformity of my thought. I get to long for the thing I am making.
In the darkened room, my eyes, though open, feel slack.
At the end of the hallway, the bedroom light is on. And then my husband turns it off.
Even in the darkness, there are the lights of our appliances. The television’s red blister tells me the television is not on. The oven’s blue glow tells me what time it is.
On the wall across from me, there is both reflection from the street lamp’s chlorine light and shadow from the maple tree.
A car heads west along our street and a square of light runs along the walls of the room like a moving frieze.
When I was a child, we lived in the country. From my bed at night, I could tell when my father was home because the light from his car’s headlights would travel along the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes, rarely, the car belonged to someone else driving out in the country. And in that case, I would wait for the sound of the garage door to open but it never would. I was a child once too, disappointed by my parents.
The overlaid shadow of leafless branches creates a tight thatch of dark lines on the wall. It reminds me of the artist Terry Winters’ Branching Structures but in reverse, like a negative of that painting. Another inversion: this is not the shadow of tree branches but the shadow of its roots.
Instead of drawing the shadows, I use them to erase the letter I have written for my daughter on her second birthday. I make a photocopy of the handwritten letter and tape the pages to the wall. With charcoal, I trace the shadow of branches.
What information reflects from the surface, what is absorbed in the shadow?
That is, could I read the text like I look at light—vaporous dream, soft time—every sense open, detached, excluding nothing?
Let me try: A sentence runs across the page, blends into coal, repeats, but unexpectedly. Ugly slices across the page. A language of longing remains, flakes of punctuation, and you and I. You who are not I. (Memory of the green flash of when you were mine, when the doctor pointed at the screen and said “that’s the pregnancy,” cautiously. She thought we would miscarry. You are mine to lose. I am yours to consume.) Repetition of address, catalog of daily life slashed by coal, like losing memory, and in the shadows the you might remain hidden and singular. Sadness disrupted by dark. The harm of I’s longing interrupted, the nourishment of I’s attention persisting.
I begin to feel, slowly and unremarkably, as if I belong with the trillion luminaries dividing night from day.
Another summer, and the leaves block out the streetlight entirely. The wall at night is solid shadow. In the day, the sun’s rays score the darkness toward a circumference made of all light fanned out in blue, yellow, and red. The irony is that darkness is so intimate with the sun that from earth we cannot see that its light is not absolute. Darkness wraps it like skin.
J’Lyn Chapman lives in Longmont, Colorado, and serves as an Assistant Professor in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Her book Beastlife was published by Calamari Archive in 2016. The same year, the long essay A Thing of Shreds and Patches was selected by Amaranth Borsuk as a winner of the Essay Press Digital Chapbook Contest. She has also published the chapbooks The Form Our Curiosity Takes (Essay Press, 2015) and Bear Stories (Calamari Press, 2008). Her work can be found in Conjunctions, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, and Denver Quarterly, to name a few.