Wednesday, December 25, 2013

ADVENT 12/25: Lia Purpura



Lia Purpura


I’m a dot. My dog’s a white dot. Together we’re caught and held in the police helicopter’s red searchlight. My dog’s a very patient dot. As I stop to think, she sits and waits. I’m remembering a doctor’s appointment at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon; by way of a stand of tall, scrappy trees, the pines along the Via Appia; and who knows why, but a woman, last week, trapped at a podium giving a bad talk to a bored audience. She didn’t seem to know it was bad. But I did. (Everyone knew. Embarrassment on behalf of another – a classic dot-trap.) Then, right here in the parking lot, distant laughter overlays; whine of brakes slowly slowing, like a long, last pull on a fat wine sack; squirrels in leaves; hollow pop of hydraulics from the construction site. Bright, loud civilization-sounds and the pictures they conjure pin a dot down. Hold her in place. Two circular smears side by side in torn-up ground (just to my left on a little rise), made by an earth-moving thing like a backhoe: an infinity sign, should a dot want a companion. If a dot is open to companions, then in they rain: tree branch arrows; fallen, blackened chewing gum stars.

A dot is a point by which life is confirmed. A sign that the parking lot’s not a wasteland. And here comes the copter’s red beam again. That god-like eye looking for me. Alone, I don’t indicate “teeming” or “throngs” like biotic stuff might: those ever-tempting Sea Monkeys advertised in the backs of Archie comics, so happy, so lusciously drawn (what kind of person makes a living by disappointing kids?) Opening a dusty packet, you’d find a spoonful of dehydrated, comma-sized Monkeys; after a few days, they’d fatten up and wiggle around in their jar of warm water -- but never grow faces. After a week, the  Kingdom was a colloidal mess, and not a single Monkey was visible. A lesson learned, their inventor might say, justifying, or the illustrator would, drawing all those pink, chubby cheeks, distinguishing the princess sea monkey (eyelashes, dimples) from the guaranteed one-per-pack prince with crown and sceptor. All with human-webby feet. “A Sea Monkey family!” “So eager to please they can even be trained!” (Actually, they were eager to eat, so when you tapped in a dose of dusty food, they’d flagella right to it. Even a brine shrimp knows which way is up. When the food ran out – at about the time you were fully sad -- the Monkeys were done for.)
     What a comet trail “biotic” made! One single flare from a single dot mind – and all this came forth.

A dot’s not going to disappoint. From far away, it’s still countable, bodied -- roseate, if the helicopter’s flying at dawn. Empurpled if caught in the gloaming, before the beam sharpens against true night and reddens the dot into super clarity.

I’m not doing a “dots in pop culture” review here, nostalgically musing on Candy Dots, connect-the-dots books, Dot the nickname, etc., but rather, sticking with the original premise: from air, I’m a dot. My dog’s a white dot. Nothing much until brought into focus. And since it’s a police helicopter, somewhere up there are delicate crosshairs -- inset in goggles, or dashboard-mounted. A set of crosshairs where I might be centered in lenses so powerful, that actual hair (even a nimbus like mine) can be tuned in precisely. That red beam could be aimed right through my dog’s tail, which curls like the handle of an old tea cup. Or exactly like the tail of a milch cow pitcher. We have one at home that’s all white.  My grandmother’s beautiful porcelain one was shaded with brown spots and looked like a real hide. Her cow wore a bronze bell around its neck that tinked when I poured milk into my cocoa. Which I did often, to make the cow more alive still.

That cow’s a dot I hover over -- in mind, because my uncle now has it. It isn’t gone; it just requires an aerial view. The past often does. Danger does, too: skulking, milling, suspicious dots a police helicopter doubles back on. Bigger dot too close to smaller? Smaller dot going under? Copter flying lower to check: Big dot throttling smaller dot? Dots in train yards, circling cars? Single running dot with . . . what? TV? Dot hauling sack of dot belongings -- across tracks, across fields, to dot camp under highway?

At the end of our walk, standing and thinking (my dog’s off playing and out of the scene) I might just be a splotch of paint where the the lot-lining went wrong. A patch of old snow. An ice puddle. A gull, head tucked, black eyes averted. But the pilot’s trained in dot discernment, to align sites, to read shadows, movement, and light, so as to reveal a dot’s identity. It’s like using binoculars to find a bird. Which is way more interesting than birds-at-a-distance. Just last week, I turned a dot into an eagle, though tuning it in with my magnified eye didn’t make it “brave” or “fierce”. It was hanging out with other eagles at the head of the Conowingo Dam, where, as soon as the hydro-electric starts up, the fish get shocked, and the pickings are easy. The birds simply dip in and pull out a meal. That’s not particularly heroic behavior. Or ferocious, independent, adventurous. An eagle holding a fish fast to a rock (how soft the tufts where leg and body meet!) the precise stab and tear, then the pulling of a long, fresh strip of meat: that’s not a symbol of anything. Just hunger met. And the way the bird swallows, head up and gulping, meat in the gullet slowly moving, the warmth I imagine filling the bird, the body sated, finishing, resting – all this just intimate.

For a moment, I’m what the copter’s after, what its red eye is tracking. I try to project nonchalant dot behavior. Soon, though, it’s clear; I’m not what they want. I’m what the dot they’re looking for wants.
     I’m a dot’s dot. A target, a bullseye.
     To a dot on the lam, I’m a mark.
     For dot spotters, a blip.
     Still, since they’ve lingered a bit, they’ve seen my curious stance, my head inclined, the way I bent down very slowly toward a low rustling: a vole leaving its nearby vole home; a vole out for a meal. They’ve watched me watch a vole eating something. How it used its nose and precise, tiny claws, and dug and paused and looked around. There’s the little trail it made. There’s a skirmish mark in dirt where it wrestled with and got a grip on an apple core and ate a few bites. I’m completely on the up and up. Nothing illegal. Just out vole-spotting.  Learning something about vole life.
     Steal with your eyes, my grandmother said.
That’s what I’m doing.
Though I didn’t see this elegy coming.


Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays) and King Baby (poems). Her honors include a  Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and the Beatrice Hawley, and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry.  Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Essays, and elsewhere.  She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a member of the core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop, and teaches at writing programs around the country, including, most recently, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. She lives in Baltimore, MD.


This essay is reprinted here by permission of The Normal School, where it first appeared.


We hope you've enjoyed our advent calendar programming this year. After today we go back to our regular schedule, being featured posts on Mondays, editor posts (most) Wednesdays, and ad hoc posts whenever we get around to them. Thanks for reading & essaying this year. If you'd like to pitch us an idea for an Essay Daily piece, the email's on the right. —Editors

No comments:

Post a Comment