Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2012. 224 pages. $15.95.
I can picture Lia Purpura standing stock-still in the middle of Grand Central Station or Times Square, examining with unmitigated concentration a leaf or a cicada or even a washer, an item she has told interviewers she collects on walkabouts. Part naturalist, part philosopher, part poet, Purpura has a penchant for intense observation, for, in the words of the book’s promotional copy, “refusing to let the reader slide over anything, from the tiniest shards of beach glass to barren big-box wastelands.” In other words Purpura’s new collection of essays, Rough Likeness, is about a lot of stuff most of us have never thought twice about, let alone ruminated on—everything from buzzards to The Lustres.
We’ve missed a lot.
Rough Likeness is a meditation on how to subvert distraction, a cultural shortcoming, according to Purpura. “Paying attention changes both the perceiver and the perceived,” Purpura has ventured in an interview. “If attention is fractured, then actual, human relationships and solitude fray.”
Thematically, Rough Likeness is an extension of her 2006 essay collection On Looking, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was described by Nicole Walker of Diagram as layers of vision folded “into solid beams of precision.”
These skillfully-rendered musings often strike the reader as more prose poem than essay. Purpura is the author of three poetry collections and a book of translations and that sensibility enhances her prose. In “Against ‘Gunmetal’ ” a storm transforms “all the ponchos calm and isocelate” into neon rain gear “blown scalene with wind.” In “Try Our Delicious Pizza,” she watches “coal trains in the station offering the sundered, ruined hearts of mountains.”
Both these sentences are germane to the palpable frisson in Rough Likeness between evoking the moment and grieving over the moment passing; noticing the coal trains alerts one to the remnants of decimated mountains. Zeroing in on the leaf, the inverted goldfinch, the beach glass, heightens Purpura’s awareness that “all things go.”
In the face of life’s transitory, elliptical nature, how does one capture the sublime? In an essay entitled “The Lustres,” Purpura examines the moments (similar to Proust’s madeleine) that stay with a person throughout life, such as “booking the couchette to Prague” or happening upon the “French perfume bottles on a mirrored tray, each with a dram of valuable scent gone brown and syrupy at the bottom.” The difficulty of setting these moments down on paper is likened to the sensation “of trying to raise a stuck window.” It can be done, but not without concerted effort.
Purpura is attempting to educe both Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” and the “prickly-bright sensations” Emerson said he read for. Anathema to her are writers who, upon examining the world, are satisfied to get “the gist” of it; those who, in attempting to describe the gray sky will settle for “gunmetal,” a “Happy Meal” word, a word that “will make you feel a part of the team,” but is not, ultimately, up to snuff.
In a previous collection of essays, Increase, Purpura reveals that she spends as long as eighteen months on a single poem: “a thing grows into the light available to it.” Each of her present volume’s eighteen luminous essays have been cultivated with care.
This care is central both to Purpura’s writing and to her views of the ethical import of close attention. In an open letter after the editors of Fugue altered one of her essays, she showed how this fastidiousness has played out in her life, as well as her art:
Most egregious is this: you’ve made the experience of reading my essay into the form of reading I fight against (in the classroom and as a writer and thinker) and hate most: the distracted skimming that constitutes so much of our daily reading life. . . . The assumed porosity of a piece of writing, the erosion and easy manipulation of it, may be the aesthetic-of-the-month, but it surely isn’t mine. I want my readers to know that any essay of mine is written by an actual, identifiable human being and is spoken to another actual, identifiable human being: the reader, whoever he or she is.
In On Looking Purpura examined everything from autopsies to the smallest woman in the world to glaciers. In the new collection, she applies this fierce commitment to precision more often to the psyche, with titles like “Being of Two Minds,” “Remembering,” and “Advice.”
As Purpura moves toward the interior, the sheer brilliance of her language becomes even more apparent. What’s most striking about these essays, as well as the ones in her previous collection, are the numerous moments that Chekhov said he read for “when everything becomes clear.” Reading Purpura’s calibrated prose, feels like, as she puts it, enjoying “one small piece of pure Belgian dark,” as opposed to a “dozen okay chocolates.”
Purpura is an artist set like a bulwark against the harried world, a much-needed salve for those of us who long for respite from it.