"A word is a way to speak about something that really, in truth, no word can touch."
- Lia Purpura
Maybe two months ago I was in Barnes and Noble looking for a particular book of essays which it turned out they did not have. But, as sometimes happens, right where the book I was looking for should have been, there was another book that looked like it might be interesting called Rough Likeness by Lia Purpura. I picked it off the shelf and started flipping through it, and was struck immediately by the freshness and freedom of the language and by the way her writing seemed to mirror the motion of her mind in thought. Too often essays, even (especially?) essays of the kind that appear in anthologies like Best American Essays, have a kind of earnestness about them that makes reading them feel like, well, eating your spinach because it's good for you. But these had a different feel to them. They looked like they might be fun to read. I tucked the book under my arm and made my way to the cash register. When I got home and started to read, all of my initial impressions were confirmed, and then some.
Purpura is an inventive, explorational writer. She is interested in the effects that can be created by the sequencing of words, and in the words themselves. Avoiding the formal, familiar, and therefore more predictable language of the academic essay, she writes in a way that seems to follow the immediate tendencies of her mind in action. She's a self-conscious writer in the best sense, in that she is fully aware even as she writes of the sometimes bewildering number of choices that are presented by each word she chooses. She's a writer of poetry as well, and the rhythms and sounds and imagery of poetry often characterize her prose. Her writing is carefully crafted, but comes across as natural, spontaneous speech. Here, for example, are the first few sentences of "The Lustres," the second essay in the book. (The title is from Emerson, who used the word to describe "the prickly bright sensations" which he said were one of his pleasures in reading.)
I am, I admit, daunted here. Set upon by impossibility, which is both my subject and predicament. My method, then will be the standard proceeding-in-the-face-of variety. I'll call some point beginning and begin. This state, right now, is coiled up like a fiddlehead fern, so bright-green, fresh, lemony, cochlear I cannot bring myself to pick/wash/steam it just yet. This moment, folded into itself, is resting so tenderly I find it hard to get going—in just the same way I cannot bring myself to make a fist with one hand while touching the yielding velvet of an earlobe with the other. Or to bite down hard on pearled barley on luminous beads of tapioca. (9)
The "moment" she is referring to is the moment of generation, the instant at which and in which the artist touches a brush to a blank canvas or the writer puts the first tentative words in the page. It's the moment of the first gesture, the first move, from which all othes must follow. She begins by considering how it feels to be beginning, and comes up a series of similes (the fern, the fist, the taste of tapioca) to convey the feeling of the moment. And it's characteristic of her that the last simile in the sequence comes in from what feels at first like deep left field. It surprises me. I'm sure it surprised her. It was not what she had in mind when she began, but in beginning, she found her way to it. Which is, of course, why we write. (Most students do not understand this, and are in fact convinced that the only reason to write is to prove to someone (usually a teacher) that you have something already in your head. I've made a career out of trying in my own limited way to get them to reconsider that core belief. But I've ranted about that before.)
Purpura is enamored of words, and supersensitive to their overtones and undertones, their denotations and connotations, the freight they carry with them. "Lustres" is in large part an essay written in appreciation of words, and there a number of specific words that in this essay ("Vienna, Japan. Sublime. Bower. Pigs.") she takes pains to unpack:
I learned the word bower for an intimacy I trace to a scene atop an enameled pillbox, given to me by Madame Lulu, visiting from South Africa. She ran an orphanage for Jewish refugees, and we knew the grown-up orphan who was my parents' friend, David. On the pillbox, in blue and white, a seated peasant girl and standing peasant boy inclined together in a tondo of love amid hills and a far-off, blurry castle. Their heads touched, their eyes met on the empty basket in her lap and the bouquet in his hand hung just a wisp, a breath of white away from it. Sometimes I'd take a break from the scene and flick the golden lisps of the clasps apart, open the box, and touch my tongue to the fine powder there left by Madame's pills—tiny saccharine tablets for her tea—then snap the box shut and ride the wisp all the way down to the girls lap, and fast up to the distant castle. (12)
In another essay, "Against Gunmetal," she ponders the use of that word as a familiar adjective for gray, as in "gunmetal sky." Her impulse is to reject it precisely because it is so familiar as to be shopworn:
I want such a sky to quiet me (not "strike me dumb"— that's a rod drawn up, enforcing awe, and one is "smote"). And I want, in that quiet, to search out my terms. And what I decide on, I want to be more than a firearm's alloy. Harder to come by. Chromatic. I want to turn to oyster and mouse, tidepool and tin, and then tank those and reconfigure if they grey they offer is not worthy, if associations gained are not surprising, of a distance previously unreachable, and intimately roomy. Freshening and new. (37)
Purpura is also a teacher (of college-level creative writing), and one passage in particular struck me as being particularly apt and true to my own experience of both writing and teaching:
Here, I walk into class thinking Really, I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of language, and so on about reverie, solitude, etc. Here, sitting down I'm going over my secret: I don't want to be inspiring, I just want to write and they, too, should want that—let's all agree to go home and work hard. I walk in, I see people with books, stacks fo books I've asked them to read. Besides Woolf, there's James Agee (let's take that out class), who lived with the poorest of white sharecroppers of Alabama and whose force of nature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was published in 1941, as he might add, Year of Our Lord, to dignify the event. (Event: I choose my word carefully, friends, for as Agee writes, 'this is a book only by necessity…' let's turn to page xi…) Now I'm cooking. I, in my flight suit (black sweater and jeans) look into the faces of my cadets. Everyone's eager. We walk to the runway. We find the ignition. (81)