on Lia Purpura
I begin, as I often do, in irritation. Many things irritate me, but I suppose this isn’t supposed to be an essay about my irritations. In fact, as easily as I am irritated by people and swear I’ll take a grudge to the grave, all it takes is a glass of wine and a winsome smile, and I’m entirely won over by whoever I’ve sworn was a mortal enemy. Admittedly, a past partner found this quality annoying. You lack a sense of self, she said. No, I responded, it’s just that I lack consistency. I am quixotic.
Which is perhaps a seemingly strange digression to take in an essay about an essay. But it’s the one that comes to mind first. Irritation. And one of the chief things that irritates me is when people talk about the essay, describing its constituent parts or what makes for a particularly compelling sort of essay, laying out the rules for others to follow as though such a path existed. No one, in my mind, should make such proclamations about the essay, I say in an essay where I make proclamations about the essay.
In graduate school, my classmates and I often wrote personal essays, which meant, bad things that had happened to us and our reflections on them. This, the recording of a life, according to our professors, was an essay. A personal experience drawn from your life that you seek to make meaning of. Preferably a bad one.
But this is a rigid definition of only one kind of essay. The essay is quixotic. It is at its best when it dwells in uncertainty, when it doubles back on a previously held assertion, delighting the reader with some new piece of knowledge, of insight, of delight. Certainly, I make space for the personal essay, but when I read people making claims about the personal essay as the ESSAY, I balk. I dwell in irritation. I say to my spouse and friends, “the essay is capacious”, so often that I begin to irritate myself. It is not, I say, found in any one thing or anthology. The form isn’t expanded, merely enjoyed. I teach the essay now myself. Of course, the teaching of the essay is a symbol of my unwillingness to conform as I teach it in a comp course.
In my course, after students have finished the traditional personal essay, scouring their lives as a buzzard might an open road for carrion, the way an octopus might scour the ocean for crabs, we move towards the classic essay. We speak briefly of Montaigne. We read Ross Gay and Zadie Smith, parsing out the meaning of joy, of sorrow, of the odd connections between seemingly disparate things. We watch those writers struggle on the page, trying to make a meaning of that which eludes, which cannot be pinned down. After reading these essays for two weeks, my students ask. What do we do exactly? What’s the point of the essay? Can we just write about anything? Baffled by the task. Anything, I say. An essay can be about anything. It is your style, your voice, the internal rhythm and insights that make up an essay. It is the quality of your looking, your attunement turned on the world, seeing what fresh, pulpy thing appeals.
Which brings me to Lia Purpura’s essay, "On Coming Back as a Buzzard," which originally appeared in Orion. It immediately confounds my students. Why is she talking about coming back as a buzzard? The essay didn’t make sense. What did she mean? I am content to give up my students to bafflement. It seems a good preparation for life, which rarely conforms to narrative conventions.
Purpura’s essay begins, “I KNOW, COMING BACK AS A CROW IS A LOT MORE ATTRACTIVE. If crows and buzzards do the same rough job—picking, tearing, and cleaning up—who wouldn’t rather return as a shiny blue crow with a mind for locks and puzzles?” Contrast, of course, is at the heart of good essays, avoiding the expected turn. Surely we’d all rather show up as the sleek crow, intelligent, capable of problem solving, of remembering where it has hidden items. Instead of the clever crow, Purpura wants to be a buzzard. She now has a task ahead of her, convincing us, by precision of language and the delight of thought that we too, humble readers, should understand her desire to be the naked headed buzzard, entrails slippery on its beak. A task so odd to set oneself, it nearly boggles the mind. And in bogglement as in bafflement, I take pleasure.
As for me, I’ve never thought about coming back as a buzzard. A butterfly maybe? Of course Zhuangzi, another thinker, has already beaten me to it, his old Daoist thought about not being sure if he’s a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. So butterflies are out. A friend suggested I might like to come back as a cow. We were at a farm recently, and I took picture after picture of the horned beasts gently clipping grass, idly watching us, attempting the occasional acrobatic screw, autumnal leaves, pattering in the pasture, graceful as they fell. While on the farm, we learned that even the female Texas Longhorns have horns, which is precisely the sort of thing I’d love to have already learned in an essay.
I tell my students that a good essay is about remaining in the match as Jacob when he wrestled God. In the essay, Purpura says of buzzards, “They intensify my thinking. They look prehistoric, pieced together, concerned. I might simply say I feel closer to them—always have—and proceed. Because, really, as I turn it over, the problem I’m working on here, coming back as a buzzard, has not so much to do with buzzards after all.” Yes, I exclaim. An intensity of thinking. A good essay is merely that. An intensity of thinking. And you can see Purpura doing precisely this, preparing to turn the idea over and over, to pursue the problem of buzzardry.
As she begins to worry the problem, the essay expands, bulging as a buzzard might, gorging on roadkill. From there Purpura inhabits the mind of the buzzard, “With me around, mishaps—side of the highway, over a cliff, more slowly dispensed by poison—do not have to be turned to a higher purpose. I step in. I make use of.” Then she pauses, a line break. “And here, I’m whittling away at the problem.” In the classic essay, I tell my students, borrowing from Purpura, you want to circle the problem, to come at it from several different ways, as a wake of buzzards. There it is, the pleasure in discovery, a wake of buzzards, there circling, a funeral in the sky. Without which, as Purpura tells us, abundance is lost. Perhaps I am trying also to teach them abundance.
But beyond that, what marks Purpura’s essay as singular, is her poet’s facility with detail. For she doesn’t just convince with the oddity and wonderment of reason, but with the tenderness, the specificity, the surprise of language. “I’d get to be one who, when passed the plate, seeks first the succulent eye. This would mark me: foreigner. Stubborn lover of scraps and dark meat. Base. Trained on want and come to love piecemeal offerings—the shreds and overlooked tendernesses too small for a meal, but carefully, singularly gathered—like brief moments that burst: isolate beams of sun in truck fumes, underside of wrist against wrist, sudden cool from a sewer grate rising.”
I first read Purpura’s collection of essays, On Looking, and was immediately taken, my mind alight with the power of words, of observation. I love her so because she seems to support my pedagogical aim. That anything, when looked at closely, when turned over in the mind, can be of interest. It is all a matter of the quality of the looking. And perhaps I can’t not write about the struggle to teach in this way because the semester is deep into the doldrums, when students dully look back at me or at their laptops, preparing for finals in finance, in economics, in anything that strikes them as having some deep utility. What most of them don’t want to do is look at something in depth, to mull. For mulling is to waste time, to worry it as a retriever might a bone, an octopus, a shell.
“The sudden cool from a sewer grate rising.” This, I want to say to my students, is it. But of course, I’ve said that about many other essays, many other times. I pause often, telling them that they’ve encountered genius and then we haggle over it. For I let them haggle, express boredom and frustration. Often, I even lock away my own interpretation. I let them meander.
I too desire to meander. I want, as Purpura wants, to glide on the thermal updrafts, to coast over the world, her, in search of carrion, me of freedom. I want, as her essays teach me, to bend and whir, to ride the updrafts of thought, to wait patiently for the next thought or meal to come. And yet, I cannot wait. I would glide forever if I was buzzard, make a skeleton in the sky.
The truth is, I’d rather be an octopus, solitary as they are. I suppose it’s that nasty pretension of mine, silly from a native Californian where the sun scours the mind as a buzzard scours the roads. But still, mine, the slight pretension. I seek depth. Thus, an octopus, eight arms, radiating with neurons appeals to me, stretching forth on the ocean floor, making cities and hunting crabs, shimmering and brilliant as it shifts. Recently, they’ve discovered only the second octopus community off the coast of Australia. Perhaps I could live among them, those gloomy octopuses, telling them about the long malaise of mid-life.
Purpura asks that question which can unmake an evening, a marriage, a life, “Am I happy? Yes, in momentary ways. Which I think is a good way to feel about things that come when they will, and not when you will them. While I’m waiting, I get to be with the light as it shifts off the wet phone wire, catches low sun, holds, pearls and unpearls drops of water.” I am impatient, rarely happy when waiting. My mind flits. No buzzard for me.
And finally, the meander comes to an end, the essayist, wearied or baffled by their own pursuit: “The problem with coming back as a buzzard is the notion of coming back. I can’t believe in the coming-back.”
I can already hear my students. Why did she write the essay at all if she didn’t believe in coming back? What’s the point? What happened to her and how are we supposed to make a meaning of it?” I adore my students. In fact, if I came back, it would probably be a golden retriever, eager to find anyone with whom they can be friends, ready to chase the ball, ready to come back as anything to keep alive whatever this whirling mass of plentitude is.
I tell my students that to push for the epiphany, the big moment of understanding, is not just to miss the point of the essay, but of life. It goes and goes, expanding as the universe. But I keep that to myself. Thankfully, I am not that sort of professor. Like Purpura, I am content merely to provoke, to hang on a wire “arranged in a broken-winged pose to dry feathers and bake off mites in the sun, that I love the wait, that I have my turn, that no one wants my job so I go on being needed—I have my human equivalences for these.”
I have my human equivalences too, my ways of looking. But sometimes, I confess, in the wreck of days, in the changing of sheets, the arguing with four children, the slog from job to job through small arterials in the city, I forget that there is anything to look at after all.
And then I read Purpura, and the mind sets to churning again, to looking, to seeing, to sorting through the wreck of days–the white curve of the Longhorn framed by purple light, the patter of leaves, gnats worrying grass, fractals of light on water. I look, not in search of an answer, but for another way of understanding, another way of seeing.
Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, The Normal School, Open bar at Tin House, and The Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC. His work is available at andrewbertaina.com