Back to Issue Thirty

from A Mother is an Intellectual Thing





Because language is never one thing, if you change the inflection of the syllable in the word conjugate, you get the algebraic word conjugate: when the sign in the middle of two terms is changed to its opposite:

X + becomes X – Y

(child + mother  becomes childmother)

This is described as a ‘rationale’

I research this. A website says a conjugate is the binomial formed by the negative of the second term of the binomial. It says X and Y are real numbers, though if Y is imaginary then the process is termed “complex conjugation.”

A mother is both real and imaginary.

I think I must understand simple math in order to understand the mother: how one multiplies and becomes two. How biological and psychological necessity keeps the mother and child attached as one, in their two bodies. How this generates complexity and as the child grows, becomes autonomous, the mother is left as a single being, desiring that the child remain a part of her. She, who created it in the first place.

It’s clear that mother exists as an origin. As a begetter of life where life could not otherwise be. She is the denominator, the figure that which represents the total population, the thing underneath the line, below the fraction that divides the number above it.

I now understand I’m a number. A fraction of a number:

1/3 (born a triplet, small sister curled aside two like brothers).

1/8 (as one child of the eight my mother birthed, because one or three or seven were not enough).

Such fractions could devalue my place as one whole person in the world. A mother who loves you gives you the full value of wholeness. A mother who does not will fracture you until you are one thousandth of a thousand wandering, wondering selves.

What I want to know is, why does a conjugate exist? A website says it can help you rationalize the denominator. It says, remember this little trick, it may help you solve an equation one day.

The equation of mother is one I still can’t solve for.

Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

It’s no surprise that I turned my mother into an idea. Transference of an emotional affect into a conceptual one helps the thinker distance themselves from the origin of pain that brought them to the ruminate the subject in the first place.

(I could say something about pain here, but pain is not logical the way a cloud is not logical the way a war is not logical the way a motherless child is not.)

Richard Courant, mathematician and author of the well-known book What is Mathematics described mathematics as “an expression of the human mind which reflects the active will, the contemplative reason, and the desire to aesthetic perfection. Its basic elements are:

logic        (my mother cannot love me)
intuition        (I have a feeling my mother does not love me)
analysis        (my mother does not love me because                    )
construction        (my mother made and then unmade me)
generality        (all mothers love their children)
and individuality        (I, alone, am unloved by my mother)

Basic elements help us understand the reason a thing exists. Such as pain existing because the mind and body exist. Like mathematics existing because of numbers. The way I exist because of my mother.

When my husband first read this he asked, do you like math now? “No,” I said, then “yes.” I meant there was more sense to it but not any complete, adequate meaning. The real answer isI don’t understand it, though likability and understandability aren’t mutually exclusive. I know it is possible to love something you don’t understand, such as the sea.

Or the thing that has gone from you.

Or watching it go.

Bertrand Russell said, “I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe—because, like Spinoza’s God, it won’t love us in return.

Mathematics, like my mother, doesn’t love me enough to explain itself fully, though, unlike my mother, it is explicit in its desirability for a logical answer as to Y, (as to why):

X + Y  becomes XY

(child + mother  becomes childmother)

It helps you rationalize the denominator. Or it just becomes that way.



Why, in a house, is there a room named for ‘living’ but not for ‘loving’? Perhaps the mother should answer. She was so specific in her giving. Built a house and filled it up with children. Gave life easily, but not love. Said, now, go and try to live. Outsourced her pain to the children who lassoed it up, carried it across each other (where?) across each other (where?), etymologically, all the way across.


In my world, the word mother translates to narcissist. Don’t ask me how. I learned it in the brute form of language, English to English, in some early dark-light of childhood. Now I have a word, I thought. Which also means: now I’ve lost a word.


Let me paraphrase (loanwords are needed): always Quid Pro Quo, my Mea Culpa, to the Hoi Polloi. Perhaps her Schadenfreude is Le Mot Juste. In other words, she hauled us like a horse, washed our nested hair, sang “see I cared for you so well”while stirring the dinner sauce. Distinction never fell away. The word child remained child (for appearances). But the children themselves became golden, goat, or lost.


I know you want narrative. I’m trying. A family is a small population with its own language. And for those on the outside, all I can give is a rendering: mother, father, child, child, child, child, child, child, child, child. I must have been unastonishing among them. Let’s call this (as Francis Bacon said) the brutality of fact. 


Memory purchases the abstract. There are flashpoints, fractions, a hinterland of hurt. No boundaries but a brink. No codes but a lifetime of decoding. A dimming switch on each child and thou shalt not feel written nowhere (but interpretable). I learned things through neglect, not command, in unspoken language: you, child, should be not heard and not seen. Which, now, I realize, reads: You are bad. You tried to say what you mean.


I tried to write the darknesses inside me are violent, but instead wrote violet. Is error, too, a form of translation? Is it an error to suggest it as so?

The violet in me wants to know.


I was taught metaphrase as a formal equivalence. Exact words becoming exact words. It’s taken me many to reach this: the family is untranslatable, my mise-en-abyme. Which translates directly to placed into an abyss.


The house is either a pulse or a plot. The mother decides it. The house can’t be translated away. It’s still there in its blue-beige, its white door and is missed, mostly, at noon. But if you walk around carefully (even in the mind) you’ll find there is a wound in every room.


I read a translation of the Émile Nelligan line, “Do you want me to astralize the night?” It’s taken me days to decipher:

                           Do you want me to star the night?
               Do you want me to make ‘of night’ the starlight of night?
                                       Or more simply,
                          Do you want some light in your night?

I live in its difficulty. Maybe some darkness is central to meaning. Or maybe darkness is meaning.


In the house, there was no room for loving.



/ɪˌradɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n. English, 16th century, comes from eradictus, the past participle of the Latin “radix” meaning root:

“to pull up by the roots”
“to pull up by her roots”
“to pull up by my roots”

Synonyms: abolish, annihilate, black out, blot out, cancel, efface, erase, expunge, obliterate, root (out), snuff (out), stamp (out), sweep (away). See also: extirpation, disambiguation.


A therapist asks me what I might have gained from all of this? “(The question that he framed in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing?”). I don’t know how to answer the question. “Everything is lost,” I say. “Well, then what have you lost?” I don’t know how to answer the question. “Make a list,” he says, “Draw a box on a piece of paper and put everything you’ve lost inside it.”


She took with her a home, the concept of home, a dog, child-
hood windows, old march snow. A history and stories,
a clock turning forward and forward, melon in the morning.
Brothers and sisters, a beach, a way to reach them, a way
to be conditional: if, all my ifs, the way hope can live inside
letters, she took, the first flicker of a new life, a daughter
I’m afraid I’ll never want. The knock knock knock
(are you there?) of my head against that loss. How I sound
with grief. She took relief and learning and left me
constantly turning toward a massive, lashing rain. Gave me
pain and pain and pain and pain. A whole line of repetition
which sprang me mathematically into action. She gave me
one final subtraction: a sad knowledge that I know is true:
the same world that mothers you, unmothers you too.


The sonnet is a fascist form, or so it is rumored that a poet had said so.


Rita Dove describes the sonnet as a heile Welt or “intact world” in the preface to her book Mother Love. She says, “Everything is in sync, from the stars down to the tiniest mite on a blade of grass. And if the true sonnet reflects the music of spheres, it then follows that any variation represents a world gone awry.”

“Can’t form be a talisman against disintegration?” she asks.


It is thought a poet invented fascism; an aesthetic ideology to counter the ennui of Italian democratic structure (circa1900), one that pushed a romanticized vision of order and war.

This lyric poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote sensually and beautifully of Abruzzo (where he was born) and of his lover (known by the pseudonym Ermione):

“E immerse
noi siam nello spirto silvestre,
d’arborea vita viventi;
e il tuo vólto ebro
è molle di pioggia come una foglia”

“And we are
Immersed in the spirit
Of the woodland,
Alive with arboreal life;
And your ecstatic face
Is soft with rain
As a leaf”

Also a soldier and political figure, D’Annunzio became a member of the Arditi during the first world war, gave stylized, inflammatory speeches from balconies, and popularized the Roman salute (which was then adopted by the Nazis). Of his adversaries, he was known to pour castor oil down their throats, a precursor to the future torture practices of Mussolini. D’Annuzio believed in “superior” humans, (including poets, prophets, and heroes), and famously said, “The rule for an intellectual is this: own, don’t be owned.”


Once, when I compared my family to a fascist regime, the therapist gave me a wide-eye and changed the subject. I don’t think it’s that he did not believe me, but that the overly sensationalized metaphor then sensationalized me. I become an exaggeration to him, a dame floraison who thinks, mostly, in metaphor. But it’s true, no matter the problems of verisimilitude, no matter fixed societal archetypes, no matter the appearance of the mind’s florid blooming: in this family, I had no rights.


“No one can tell a mother how to act: /there are no laws when laws are broken, no names / to call upon. Some say there’s nourishment for pain, and call it philosophy.” (Dove)


The following week the therapist takes the paper back, says he likes my list and thinks it’s quite musical. He doesn’t recognize it as a sonnet. “It fits nicely in the box,” he says, “you can leave it all in there, see, inside the closed walls of the square.” He counts the things I’ve lost and asks me again, “now what have you gained?”


“This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge / to understand each desire has an edge, / to know we are responsible for the lives / we change.” (Dove)


Kimberly Grey is the author of two books, Systems for the Future of Feeling, forthcoming in September 2020, and The Opposite of Light, winner of the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize. She was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and teaching lectureship from Stanford University and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, PN Review (UK), Narrative, and other journals. She is currently completing her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati and teaches for the Stanford Online High School and Summer Institutes program.

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