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Excerpt from A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing

Conjugation (I)

Just as language moves us, we must move language. It is our human job:

to be, to go, to see, to love in, to run on, to lose, to die

It’s not so hard. Verbs imply action. Action implies movement. Movement implies we are alive (at least in the moment of moving). So language, too, is alive. For a long time, I’ve considered myself a mover of language. I’ve found myself in the most difficult of rooms, furnished with big brilliant pieces that house and comfort and stand in ornate fashion. This is all true. But the furniture is words, and I shift and arrange them to stand in their sometimes rightful, sometimes wrongful places.

I don’t know how I became this way, but I’ve always fervently desired possibility. And verbs, in all their forms, provide it:


The possibilities keep me moving.

The verb signals an action, an occurrence, or a state of being. Whether mental, physical, or mechanical, verbs always express activity. “The verb,” C.D. Wright said, “works the hardest, so it should be the best paid.”

The first time I conjugated verbs, I did so in French; I did so trying to understand the possibilities of knowing (I was twelve, would, could I know?):

je sais, tu sais, il sait, nous savons, vous savez, ils savent

Conjugation, by definition, is “the creation of derived forms of a verb from its principal parts by inflection.” It may be affected by person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, or voice. It involves roots and stems, patterns and rules:

je sais, je saurai, je savais, je sache, je saurais, je susse

What I know and don’t know is full of possibility. Any rule can be learned and unlearned.

It’s taken me thirty years to understand the rules of my mother. Mostly unspoken. Mostly unfollowable: be my mirror, don’t be my mirror. You are not wanted here, but you are not to leave. Verb contradictions. It’s why I so desire to understand mother as a verb.

mother: to bestow a maternal action upon
mothered: to have once had this action, so, no longer
mothering: happening constantly, in the present, so, very lucky
mutter: how I sound when I speak, how I try not to sound
moth: batted away, thing unwanted
muster: all I could, can
mud: as good as

I break every rule by simply being, according to the mother.

was, went, saw, loved, ran, lost, died

When applied directly back to her, only the past tense is warranted. I had a mother once. Once I had a mother. “Had” shows possession. Which isn’t exactly correct. A mother was there. But she was never mine.

I remember wanting her badly, clinging to her like a fish, grasping her, holding her, touching her hand, gripping her back, smelling her hair, kissing her head. Every action repeated. Every repetition desperate with active love.

Action verbs denote the present.

It was just last night. I did this. I clung to her in a dream. Like no time, like no time.

What tense describes never again? If the spatial differences of time are measured by conjugations, then what inflection denotes complete absence? When I ask language, language tells me to keep moving:

mother, mama, ma mère, merely

Kimberly Grey

Kimberly Grey is author of three books, most recently A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing: Essays (Persea Books, 2023). She teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.