Nose for Decay

It can be argued that the internal narrator—that voice whose narration of sensation and thought tells us the story of who we are—is what separates us from other animals; it can also be argued that close attention to this narrator, coupled with a desire to recreate its slippery machinations on the page, is what separates the essay from other literary genres.  I am speaking here of what has been called the familiar, occasional, or personal essay, as opposed to the academic, polemical, or persuasive essay, and although many writers work in this vein, few work with such attention to the elusive moods and curious habits of the internal narrator as Lia Purpura. Her essays (as many of the best essays do) reflect a singular and curious mind at work on the page:

That hanging bird in the maple tree: someone might come and cut it down. Or it might stay and dissolve to bone, blowing through seasons, snared in a mess of fishing line . . . A bird pinned in air is a measure of wrongness . . . The bird’s presence impinges, like bait . . . I think it’s good to be in a place where thought can’t form the usual way, and a familiar scene—a bird-in-a-tree—gets overturned. Dissembled. Made into a precarity. Looked at one way: cornucopic. Tilted another, it goes sepulchral. How close those can be.

Although Purpura is working in the tradition of the personal essay, her writing escapes easy classification. Here we have a narrator musing over experience in the manner of Seneca and Hazlitt, Woolf and Thoreau, while sharing the stylistic concerns of contemporary essayists inspired by poetry and fiction—John D’Agata, Ander Monson, Eula Biss. Purpura’s work exhibits the intimacy and self-examination of memoir; the careful attention to language and subtle imagistic resonances of poetry; the philosophical and aesthetic concerns of criticism. She might best be called a writer of sustained attention: both her poems and essays seem to arise from the act of staying with an object or idea until unexpected insight arises. In “Augury” she considers the hanging bird above until she arrives at “an occasion for wondering what it feels like to believe.” In “Jump” her attention is captured by a cryptic sign about “the last death from jumping or diving” affixed to a bridge (“it’s a small thing that holds me”), eventually arriving at an avowal of the “broadly imperfect” nature of writing. She is fascinated by the minute—faberge eggs, a single flower, a stray thought—and often focuses her attention on the sights from which we normally avert our eyes—death and decay, rotting bodies and the limits of the flesh—but that can allow for surprising beauty.

This penchant for decay is offered as a key to both the writer’s psyche and the literary project at hand in the collection’s opening salvo, “On Coming Back as a Buzzard”: “That the world calls to me hissing and grunting, that I am given a nose for decay’s weird sweetness, that I am 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 equivalents for these.” The “job” here is that of the essayist in particular: to observe the world while remaining attuned to the ways in which the mind is moved by that observation. In Purpura’s case, these observations tend toward the opposite and complementary poles of the fecund and the moldering, signs both of life and of death. Her subject is no less grand, or quotidian, than that most familiar conundrum of human experience: mortality. In one essay she finds a dead bird and in another a dead squirrel; she ponders the fate of military cadets from the class of 1942 and the words “murder rate” in the Baltimore Sun. While these essays might seem slight, focused as they are on “scraps and spots”—a memory, a mushroom, a certain, fleeting sort of sadness—they are anything but.

Purpura’s last book of essays, On Looking, was impressive both for its daring leaps of association and imagination as well as its lyrical prose, but in Rough Likeness we see a writer hitting her stride. The first book was a set of dazzling experiments; the second is a collection by a writer in full power of her tools and her talents. Some of these essays are no more than a page or two, while others are quite long, and although the subject of transience is never far from Purpura’s peripheral vision, these pieces are  quite varied. They range from a brief description of an encounter with a mushroom that looks, for a moment, like a skull to the back-and-forth of an advice column (the writer questioning herself?) that would be at home in a collection of fiction to a masterful exploration of the personal, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns suggested by Keats’ “negative capability.” Keats once described negative capability in a letter to his brother as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . . with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Purpura also chases after Beauty in one form or another. She invokes Keats at a crucial moment in “Being of Two Minds,” an essay that addresses the concerns of the entire collection. She drops a letter into a mailbox, at which moment she “was stilled by the notion, almost a prediction, that I would find a reindeer, a really tiny one about the size of a lemon.” This image, which “popped” into her mind’s eye, is joined soon after by that of “a cleanly flensed frog,” and then the “the smell of gingerbread.” She struggles over whether to try and make meaning of these images or simply to let them be:

What if I thought about the images this way: simply, that they exist out there, and embedded in shifting forms, the tender and violent enter me, the moment’s site for such happenings. No irritable reaching after fact and reason, as Keats would say, just Hello, Reindeer. Hello, Frog. Your absolute smallness. Your unexplained end.

Purpura not only enacts the personal and poetic open-to-the-world stance that Keats championed, she gestures toward the contradictory truths that preoccupy her throughout Rough Likeness: I am alive; I am dying. (“Your unexplained end.”) I am here; I will soon be gone.

Essayists such as Susan Sontag or John Berger tend to look out at the world and report on both the act of looking and what is observed in order to better understand our place in it. Purpura looks out at the world and reports back, but she seems to do so for different reasons. She takes the act of attention to extremes, staying and staying—with an object, a thought, a moment—in order to get closer to some place of deep stillness. She works her way through the fleeting impressions the world presses into her mind in order to arrive at new knowledge about what it means to have a mind capable of engaging in this activity at all. 

These essays often start with here or this or there, words that drop the reader directly into a present moment, which has the effect of dropping us into the churning gears of the writer’s thoughts: “Here’s the cathedral, its grey stone, the grey sky, and all the grey, after-rain mottled streets”; “Our playing field is completely overgrown”; “No one’s ready” (to die, as it turns out); “That wood won’t work.” It is an inclusionary gesture, the reader already admitted into the sanctuary of the writer’s mind: “I am, I admit, daunted, here”; “How do I remember it?” There is intimacy in this starting already out of the gate, without any conversational throat clearing. It reaches more for the act of thinking than for the act of speaking, the tone almost private rather than conversational.

We actually learn very little about Purpura’s life: she is a woman, a teacher, a wife, a mother. She was once in a body cast for a year, though we do not know why. She does not succumb to the tendency of the essayist to reveal or confess, reaching rather for the poetic tools of symbolism, imagery, and metaphor to create meaning. The “blue flame of an egg,” for example, signals the ability to feel joy in the face of transience by association with Freud’s response to a “pessimistic poet” who is able to see beauty in the scenery one summer day without feeling any joy. She quotes Freud as saying the poet, “was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that . . . all that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.” Freud rejects the poet’s bleak calculus and tries to better understand what Purpura calls “mourning over impending death, life’s brevity and fragility.” The image of the blue egg holds all this, as well as Purpura’s own mourning in response to the constant loss involved in living and her ability to find joy, regardless. In these essays, ideas clearly take center stage, edging biographical narrative into the wings.

And yet, these essays are acutely personal. They reveal the twists and turns of Purpura’s mind in intimate detail. As she attempts to define a particular sort of sadness that occasionally comes over her, she writes, “I thought I could inoculate myself against the sadness, even then, by calling it up, turning it over in the light of my own making.”

If the internal narrator is what sets us apart, then each of us is defined by the language our narrator uses. Purpura’s is wild and playful, an exploration of the myriad ways that words might be joined to the stuff of the world. “I’d suspected for some time, but then: in one of my father’s art books, there was Magritte’s curvy pipe, titled ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’  . . . So objects were loosely affixed to their names, and language a game we all agreed to play!” Words surprise, they pop up (into her mind, onto the page) in joyful strings and delight like little candies popped into the mouth. We get a thunderclap’s “tonnage and stipple,” “cicatricial spots of damp,” “asparagal light”; “concupiscent,” “smutted,” “clabbering,” and “esperance.”

Occasionally, however, Purpura falls a little too in love with her own vocabulary: “Then came the scenarios, all desperate, all terrible, abraded by morning’s empurpled rise.” When I read this line, the phrase “purple prose” came to mind, perhaps because the idea of purple had just been lodged in my brain, but no less apt, I think, for the suggestion. The essays can veer sometimes toward melodrama, though Purpura nearly always corrects course before straying too far. She can take herself so seriously that we are tempted not to.

Still, Purpura is serious about words. In “Against Gunmetal,” she wrestles with the idea of using the word “gunmetal” to describe the view of a grey sky from a hotel window. “It blots out any other sky, gunmetal, does . . . Strike me down if I use it again. If I don’t, right now, erase this method by which we impart, those of us who know nothing about guns, drama to a sky, pressure to a scene, hardness, know-how, coldness to a description, glad for its hint of treachery, its sidelong thanatotic meanness.” She auditions a whole cast of descriptors, eventually eschewing what Orwell called “received language” in favor of discovering her own:

‘Gunmetal’ would make a follower of me; using it, I’d have to say a thing I’ve been taught to believe. As I’d have to take ‘blessed’ to mean: I have been chosen, marked, held right in the center of some kind, crosshaired sight. Which is nice. But doesn’t the universe also fix on falling sparrows, lend its attention to spectacular disaster, train its very steady eye on accidents, suffering, diminishment—and not intercept, help out, bless them?

There are ethical ramifications, then, to the words we choose to use. She is playing a game, but one that matters.

At the end of “Memo Re: Beach Glass,” the penultimate piece in the book, Purpura spends four pages neatly enumerating the qualities of a perfect piece of blue glass weathered by sand and water: “Finding beach glass requires focus—a dimming of range, a bounding of perspective.” As always, she is making meaning through metaphor and imagery; she might as well be talking about her own writing process. Later, she is more direct:

I submit here, this brief. Pulled as it is out of thin air, pulled from the place where that-which-we-didn’t-know-we-knew abides. Where so much gathers in a rich miasma until called forth by luck, competition . . . an impulse to sketch, itchiness for form, abundance of love for an object, a drive to give small things their due, or the weight of a personal collection piling up, asserting its presence. I submit this memo, whose true subject is both a founding tenet and sustaining goal of the whole operation I’m running here, a subject which bears repeating at times of reorganization, challenging times of uncertainty and instability, lest we forget it; the bright uselessness of joyful endeavors.

The “operation” she’s running is as much the act of writing a collection of essays as it is the high wire balancing act of living joyfully with the knowledge of death. Where there was nothing (“thin air”) she finds words to pin to experience, pausing to record them on the page in order to prove—both to herself and to us—that she exists:

Surely such moments are worth noting, small as they are, moving forth and retracing, mildly roving. Surely nothing more amped—stop the noise, kill the hype—need happen to make one certain of existing. Existing precisely, existing acutely—as, say, after a fast when eating commences, the tongue rides slowly the slick curve of a green olive, singular morsel, whose skin resists just a little, then gives, and there comes a burst of briny, sharp pleasure. Then the paring away of brisk scraps from rough pit. Rolling the pit. Holding it, shifting—all those tendered and ordered attentions.

These essays, then, offer both a meditation on transience and death and an invitation to celebrate the beauty of existence. There are no aspirations of immortality here, no coming back—as a buzzard or otherwise. These essays celebrate only this—the fleeting joys of life and the language we leave behind.

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