Lia Purpura’s 2011 Best American Essays contribution, “There Are Things Awry Here,” begins with Purpura’s encounter with a Tuscaloosa, Alabama big box shopping center and her observation that this place, “feels like nowhere, is so without character that the character I am hardly registers,” a sentiment that many readers can understand; but what separates Purpura from the average observer or writer is the way she responds, the way she sees and thinks about this everyday landscape. She says, “I’ll get to work, in the only way I know how:” and what follows that colon is signature Purpura. In an essayistic “walk” around the perimeter, she processes everything through her own idiosyncratic lens and logic; the driver of a Chemlawn truck becomes a “proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery;” a man on a riding mower becomes a, “rancher coming over a rise, backlit and stiff, sure hands on the reins, eye for the dips that would wreck a fetlock; and a “farm woman, her shawl held against the wind,” becomes in reality a woman, “juggling bags and pining her name tag.” The existential sadness of this landscape is conveyed through the failure of both her imagined and then the true history of the place to speak, to live and breathe beyond the parking lots and big box stores and land that “babbled the way all useless things babble—fuzzy bees with felt smiles, bejeweled and baubly plaques for occasions.”
Though it’s not always easy to follow the leaps of her mind, it’s always fun and rewarding—sort of like you’ve joined an Olympic caliber mental gymnastics class. Part of the fun is Purpura’s ability to let the reader in on the project, to be conscious of her essay as essay, and to invite the reader along for her walks without it seeming condescending or patronizing. In nearly every piece, she’ll tell you, usually early on exactly what the project is, even if it seems impossibly complicated. She tells you the target, the “about” in her essays, and then she dares you to follow her flight there. She explains the origins of “There Are Things Awry Here,” by saying, “When the land would not speak and my characters failed, when the land was muffled and my characters stock, this piece was born,” and we see how, when a fairly common, everyday subject—the wrongness of a suburban shopping mall--is approached with such artistic grace, the artificial boundaries between poetry and nonfiction cease to matter much. What matters ultimately is the way that Purpura’s mind goes to work; and it is work to explore a landscape so deeply, so thoughtfully and so uniquely, work that is a pleasure and inspiration to witness.
The essays in her new book, Rough Likeness—whether the subject is woodworking, a postcard, the beauty of shit, or the bothersome descriptor, “gunmetal”--make sense in addition to making lyrical sound. They don’t really look like poems, but they probably sound like poems; and what matters most is that each essay indulges in the unique subjective and delightful weirdness of Purpura’s consciousness. Her honesty of intention inspires trust in her as a guide. Her voice commands authority and attention; and we are happy to follow her deeply and darkly into the meaning of one particular moment. At times it seems like it would be difficult to be Lia Purpura, as if she is afflicted with meaning-making, with this kind of obsessive, microscopic dissection of the everyday. I imagine that she takes very long walks.
In “Two Experiments and Coda,” a winter walk, a penny, a nickel, and a feather found in the snow becomes a challenge, “everything in the space of a block will be picked up and kept, and by way of that decision, a synchronic study, some kind of picture will emerge;” and when I read this I am reminded why I love Purpura’s work so much. She reminds again and again that the world is full of meaning, that each moment is capable of beauty and depth, and that it’s our responsibility to find it. What matters is how we think about and process the things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste, the things we think about in any given moment. This is one of Purpura’s great talents as a writer, to make her essays and her books as much about how a writer sees or listens to the world as they are about any one particular subject.
Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays have been published widely; recent work can be found here. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.