by Lia Purpura
Lia Purpura’s 2006 book of lyric essays, On Looking, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a page-turner with a seeking, self-critical narrator. These meticulous, loving, grieving, surprising essays emitted their intimacies in ways that helped this reader, at least, to comprehend her own life. I think here of Purpura’s jellyfish. “Their buoyancy, transparency, fragility: the nimble, vulnerable gifts,” she wrote in “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie.” Nimble, fragile, transparent, buoyant, vulnerable—that describes Purpura’s writing at its best.
The jellyfish reveal something about the turn Purpura has taken in Rough Likeness. In the earlier volume the jellyfish image drawn from nature corresponds to the most human-made of things—the sly, human-house-like revelations of the sugar egg. The jellyfish is one of a series of correspondences, some natural, others manmade—all things that expose themselves while protected.
Rough Likeness is more protected and less exposed. The book propels itself less via emotion—those disclosures of loss or desire or self-flaw—and more by something we might call sensibility. The pages of Rough Likeness contain fewer human faces and stories than the heavily and rewardingly peopled On Looking. Instead, we confront a mind operating sometimes in the realm of ideas, sometimes in contemplation of nature—but always, as in the previous book, dexterous and avid in its churnings.
Purpura is the author of six books, including essays, poems, and translations. Rough Likeness returns to some of the subjects of her poems; David Citino has described her as a “nature poet” who uses nature to learn “more about the inner world by observing the outer” while reading “the outer world from the inner.” The emphasis on nature, or more properly on natural symbols, means that the human presences and emotional responses in Rough Likeness arrive as wished-for refreshment. So, too, do revelations drawn from fact: historical, scientific, or social material. The result is a leaner book, emotionally speaking, and a less satisfying one.
In 1997, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, the editors of Seneca Review, began promoting a style of prose they called “lyric essays,” which they said are akin to lyric poetry. “These ‘poetic essays’ or ‘essayistic poems’ give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information,” they wrote in a 2007 issue dedicated to the subgenre. “They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” Tall and D’Agata saw lyric essays as an amalgam of poetry and prose. “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language,” they explained. “It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.”
There have long been practitioners of such “poetic prose,” from Baudelaire onward. Purpura has advocated for the most open definition possible of the form. “I’m making a plea for allowing the form to remain as mysterious as possible,” she said in a 2007 interview in Smartish Pace. “I do mean ‘mysterious’ though in the best way—challenging and magical and able to work on a reader and knit up above the page. I don’t mean at all ‘unclear’ or ‘sloppy.’ The language ought to be as precise as possible in order to effect the most unlikely moves.”
I find myself wishing Purpura would bring her considerable gifts to more substantial subject matter. That’s not to dismiss the treasures to be found in Rough Likeness. In some of its most compelling moments, this book celebrates subjects of unease. In “On Coming Back as Buzzard,” she selects as her psychic counterpart the bird whose life requires death-watch. “Perched on a wire,” the buzzard waits for her next meal’s breath to stop.
“Yes, it looks like I hover, and the hovering, I know, suggests a discomfiting eagerness. Malevolence. Why is that? I haven’t killed a thing. If the waiting seems untoward, it may be confirming something too real, too true: all the parts that slip from sight, can’t be easily had, collapse in on themselves and require digging, all the parts that promise small, intense bursts of sweetness unnerve us—while the easily abundant, the spans, the expanses (thick haunch, round belly and shoulder), all that lifts easily to another’s lips and retains its form till the end—seems pure. Right and deserved. Proper and lawful. Thus butchers have their neat diagrams. One knows to call for chop, loin, shank, rump.
This linkage of the butcher shop to the buzzard’s hungry lingering is a deft moment, as is her insistence on the delicacy of decay. And in the end, the essay implies, the buzzard waits for us.
In “Shit’s Beautiful,” another exploitation of delight in unease, Purpura follows digestion to its daily, pleasurable end. “Even the arrangement is beautiful. The bends, twists, and dots. Up against bright porcelain. Magnified by and buoyant in water—the hieroglyphs, ciphers, characters (again this requires sufficient fiber/rest/water in homeostatic doses).”
If not for the down-to-earth caveat that the beauty of these intestinal formations requires “sufficient fiber,” I might be tempted to remember Denise Levertov’s “Matins” (“The authentic! I said / rising from the toilet seat”). In “The Persistence of the Romantic,” an essay that appears in his 1978 book The Situation of Poetry, Robert Pinsky used Levertov’s poem and others as evidence of the persistence of naive romanticism in contemporary poetry. But, Purpura notes, the joy of shit eventually comes to a halt. Against the physical release and curving script of shit presses the future—the moment that every body quits shitting and opens under the buzzard teetering on a wire: “Let me say without too much embellishment: the system, shut down, is a nightmare of ceasings. If you haven’t encountered the language yet, it goes varices, tears, inflammations, fissures. Ruptures. Bleeding (internal and ex-). And for others, it’s pouchings, cramps, kinks, misrouted fluids, excessive trapped air, even auto-immunological destruction.”
Beauty is momentary and contextual. So in “Gray,” Purpura writes out her refusal to find beauty easily. “I’ll have no church bells chased to birdcall. No gravely beautiful sidewalk, ice-cracked, with its palette of grays upriding like little headstones. No minor-key wind-hum. No cloud-spire combo of grays rising up. No parable-like breadth to all this, containing, extending, enlarging by grays.” The refusal to compare or beautify the “gray things” opens a crack of possibility; so it is possible to celebrate the ordinary, the tarnished, and she stands outside the cathedral, “noting every gray thing” and “giving thanks,” though the essay qualifies the thanks: “And by thanks I mean I admit I know not what to do, where to go, with all I’ve been given.”
So too in “Augury,” the dead goldfinch “snared in a mess of fishing line” and swinging upside down from a maple turns the essay away from the impulse to idealize a spot that “worked like a bower” where the author could “pause at the turn, and enter it, and feel contained.” Instead, “the bird’s presence impinges, like bait.” This “last moment . . . made so visible” again, opens the possibility of contained celebration. “But yellow gets to be glorious, too,” writes Purpura. “Such a yellow scours sight, fattens it. It is uncorruptedly lemonlike. And the sharp bolt of black on the wing shines like a whip of licorice.”
“Uncorruptedly” is the word choice. The brash color is not “uncorrupted”; it appears as though uncorrupted, while at the same time attached to an irreversibly corrupted body.
Ever since reading Pinsky’s “The Persistence of the Romantic” as a young woman, I’ve been struck by its applicability to American writing. Purpura’s impulse seems to be toward the sublime, and in places she undercuts that urge to powerful effect. In “Try Our Delicious Pizza,” Purpura sees a woman “stuffing baggies and needles deep into a hole in the passenger seat” and reimagines her. “The light through the trees was so gentle, so ancient it made her look like a peasant planting, bent at the waist, with thick legs and a hiked skirt.” When Purpura hears “a low cooing from the back seat,” she envisions a “contented baby.” It’s one of those deep pleasures of realism when the happy baby turns out to be an aggravated, probably drugged-out man.
Purpura’s previous book of essays, On Looking, drew power from narratives, historical references, and emotional wrangles. In this new volume, narratives, histories, and strong emotions appear less frequently. This reader, at least, grasped for such moments. The more interior, sensibility-driven essays in Rough Likeness do evoke a mind that plays in a provocative and sometimes fascinating manner across its surroundings. But Purpura’s gift in some of the earlier essays of On Looking is to generate emotion via charged social conflicts and personal relationships, in combination with active and dazzling language. Her writing can render her deeply vulnerable at such moments. This is true in On Looking when her son visits a carnival attraction advertised as “The Smallest Woman in the World” (in an essay of the same title) and Purpura recognizes, on seeing the attraction’s wheelchair folded in a corner, that the smallness is equivalent to “hurt” rather than “little-pal small” or “hold-her-in-your-pocket-magically-small.” The moment, and Purpura’s hope that her boy won’t notice the wheelchair, precedes a meditation on what it means to be a woman inside of a culture that looks at woman.
It feels as though there is less at stake for Purpura in Rough Likeness. Perhaps this is because of a difference in the “I” of these essays. The “I” in this volume dwells less on its weaknesses. At moments, it insists on its superiority. “Given the choice between, say, a dozen okay chocolates and one small piece of pure Belgian dark, I’ll take the smaller, perfect thing. The brief one-time delicacy. It’s always been this way with me,” Purpura writes in “Being of Two Minds.” “Memo Re: Beach Glass” also describes the self as unusually discerning:
Not too many people are patient enough to throw back the young pieces. I do, because without fully-developed features, without the properties sand and tides produce, beach glass is detritus, junk, trash.
Sharp, splintery breakage. Time makes it otherwise.
The speaker of such passages stands apart from humanity. Unlike me, for instance, she seemingly never had to learn that overconsumption of inferior chocolate eventually causes pains of all kinds. This bardic “I” invites readers to accept its insights and tastes rather than to share in joys, weaknesses, or sorrows.
There are a few essays in Rough Likeness that recall the more peopled project of On Looking. These essays, rooted in time and place and loss, can be profoundly affecting, partly because they place the self in a disrupted relation to the subject matter. “Remembering” and “The Lustres” invoke long-ago memories, implying real affection and also its loss. “Things Are Awry Here” is a self-aware battle to give historical meaning to a set of big-box stores on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Active grieving is apparent in the project.
The essays of Rough Likeness often carve off subject matters from their social, historical, and political meanings. Thus the buzzard is a symbol. So is the upside-down goldfinch in “Augury.” The essays use them as symbols without probing, for instance, why the symbols come readily. The easy availability of the buzzard and goldfinch as symbols results from human actions. So the lack of exploration comes to seem naive, perhaps intentionally so, and to suggest shallowness in the essay. The goldfinch and the buzzard appear here because Purpura has direct experience of them—and her experience derives from the fact that these two species are among the minority that have managed to live alongside humans while others, once populous, find new homes or die off. The goldfinch is strung up in plastic fishing line, which implies a human part in the death. But this culpability goes unmentioned. The manner of death seems oddly innocent.
When the essays falter, it’s sometimes because of this impulse toward the sublime that sidelines the junkie cooing in the backseat or the fact that all shitting eventually comes to an end. The less complete essays seem content to seek the pure. “On Tools” ponders all sorts of details involved in quartering logs for burning. On the first page it briefly mentions a chainsaw, then preoccupies itself with hand tools. Although people who pile up wood and can afford to do so will often buy a log splitter, the essay doesn’t mention such a device. One gets the impression that, though common and useful, such a tool (requiring as it does things like engines, torque, and fossil fuels) is too dirty for this essay. Similarly, as noted earlier, Purpura devotes an essay to beach glass, first noting in a long single sentence that beaches today are mostly full of plastic. The five-page exploration of beach glass after such an admission makes me wonder why the pretty is so preferable to the real.
The problem with such a tactic is that it selectively misrepresents the world. Not only does it emphasize easier-to-like objects over the uglier ones around them, it risks idealizing objects that have more than one history. It ignores, for example, the sordid history of axes, which help greatly in the felling of forests. It ignores the greenhouse gases that wood burning releases. It ignores glass industry emissions. Not that I think Purpura had to include such information. But the purposeful sorting and eliminating of the ugly, the determining of beach glass to be more worthy of interest than beach plastic, should lead us to ask why.
One has to ponder a larger question here. Is nature writing in the romantic tradition possible now that so many species populations are plummeting, now that human beings inhabit a planet remade in their own image?
This is not the only absence of context in the book. In “Against Gunmetal,” Purpura seeks someone who will explain guns and their metal. She mentions knowing a soldier who served in the Iran-Iraq War, “and though that’s long ago now for him, I hesitate.” She says she remembers a photo of his thin form next to a tree, “and something came just before the photo and something happened just after it, to the side of the tree, or behind it—it’s that the tree’s starkness is a point of reference.” The hints and evasions and refusals to explore in an essay about gunmetal seem strange. Purpura is willing to seek explanations of many other subjects from her friends. Is the confrontation with war the problem here?
Another essay makes use of explicit quotes from Whitman’s Civil War writings. “C.H.L., 145th, Pennsylvania, lies in bed six with jaundice and erysipelas; also wounded; stomach easily nauseated; bring him some oranges, also a little tart jelly.” The quotes also include, again from Whitman, the worry that the “real war” is untellable. Later in the book, Purpura describes reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” “Almost every entry begins with a mere nod to the war outside her window,” Purpura notes before turning to Woolf’s more pressing preoccupations. But the quote Purpura draws from the Woolf essay says, “John came in, looked white about the gills, his pale eyes paler than usual, and said the French have stopped fighting. Today the dictators dictate their terms to France.” The quotes, with their desperate honesties about what it means to live in wartime, inevitably raise questions about Purpura’s essays, written in a country at war but offering only quickly muted evidence of that truth.
To be fair, Purpura is hardly the only American writer to ignore our wars, and much else about science, politics, and history. But her essays often hover near such material and then turn resolutely from it. Also, she’s a talent. One hopes for more.