The Mother I: Reading Jorie Graham’s “Lapse”

by Chloe Garcia-Roberts


As the child of two languages and two cultures, my own poetic inclinations have always lain with the expression of plurality: it is the question that moves me and the articulation I aspire to.

In becoming a mother, already halved, I found myself halved again: into the fragmented person I have always been and the mother I am now. To effectively communicate within this new dimension of exponential increase, to read and learn from those who proceed me, those who accompany me, has become even more imperative. It has become necessary to survival.

I recently read about a new breakthrough in our understanding of microchimerism, which is the presence of a number of genetically distinct cells originating from another individual existing within a host individual. This phenomenon which was originally noted as occurring in children, who hold cells from their mothers, has been discovered to happen the other way as well, unique cells from the child also exist in the mother.

Is this corroboration for the swarm of me as myself, as mother, as myself the mother?

Last year, a friend shared with me an account of early motherhood by a well known American poet. The poet described it as what seemed like years of pushing her child on a swing that suddenly, when that particular responsibility lessened,  opened and released a torrent of new poetry. I kept returning to this anecdote and later realized that what moved me so in this little story was that both parts of the poet’s life existed and were developing even if the poet herself was not completely aware of it. Still reeling from the seismic shift, the freefall of my son’s first year, to hear this gospel of the latent, of art assembling itself below the surface of the parental, was manna.

But it wasn’t only the fruit of the poet’s actions that struck me in this story, it was the symbol used to describe this period of poetic gestation, those years of intensive all consuming parenting—pushing a swing. Not rocking a baby, not reading to them, not cooking, not nursing, not changing diapers, but the swing. The mind-numbingly repetitive action of pushing your child away and guiding them back, over and over and over again. That this seemingly pointless activity, this repetitive burnishing of one swath of space —with no clear beginning or end besides initial desire and ultimate boredom—could cultivate poetic expression, this was what made me keep the story close to my heart returning to it over and over and over again. 

Shortly afterward I came across Jorie Graham’s poem “Lapse” in the American Poetry Review, which conflates both the symbol of this new state, the swing; and it’s form, a microchimeral awareness. There is so much in this poem represented by the swing and its movement: the pendulous emotions of parenthood, the terror of responsibility countered by the weightlessness of wonder, the duty to foster independence versus the physical longing to protect, the smear between that upswing of complete symbiosis and the downswing of vulnerability and independence, all of which are encompassed by the mother. And yet, between these poles, throughout, everywhere, the poet opens, flickers. The more you look the more you see her mental I’s, her physical eyes. They populate the poem like weeds, they grow through this simple moment of mother pushing her daughter on a swing on this “day that seems even now it will never end.” They affirm, even here in this space domesticated by this action, this emblem of parenthood, the poet exists, multiplies.

This record of growth and opening through this act of stasis—of parenthood—creates a muti-dimensional map of a microchimeral consciousness: the poet mother mind. Readings like this act as rosary beads to me. They are testament that motherhood does not diminish, smother, extinguish the poet. It divides her. It opens I’s.

Chloe Garcia Roberts is a poet and translator living in the Boston area. She is associate curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard and an editor of Zoland Poetry. Her poems and translations have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in InterimPoetry International and Cerise Press and a book of her translations of the Classical Chinese poet Li Shangyin will be published by New Directions in 2014.