Because the Essay Can Do So Much
Recognized for her richly poetic digressions yet startling precision, Lia Purpura doesn’t disappoint in her most recent collection of essays, A Rough Likeness. It’s an exciting excursion from one essay to the next as Purpura’s meditations move from the quest for meaning to the very act of meaning-making. I raced to get a copy of A Rough Likeness and slowed down while reading it only to savor the strange and inevitable beauty of the language. Marked with images both sparkling and haunting, these essays dwell in the mystery of nearly forgotten histories, shards of stories, beach glass, memories. Purpura writes “Without a story, the fragments won’t settle,” and while her essays demonstrate the veracity of this statement, outside of them some things are settled: Lia Purpura’s essays are fiercely elegant yet filled to the brim with guilty pleasures.
As satisfying as the book is, I was also interested in getting a few other things settled, particularly regarding her writing process and the creative choices that she made while putting this collection together.
Kathleen Blackburn:In your essay, “The Lustres,” you write “One summer night, when I was six and put to bed while the sun still shone and the game in the street went on without me, I thought to myself, framing it up, ‘the world is going on without me.’” You go on to describe the playful way you re-imagined the world, and the words that make it up, as a child. How early did your work as a writer begin?
Lia Purpura: I suppose it’s exactly impulses like this one you mention that started me off—the intensity of that dreamy space-before-sleep, those moments that feel real enough to hold, meeting up with language . . . at some point, the impulse becomes one of preserving moments and not just experiencing them . . . if inclined to words, one discovers that words help, the matching of words to moments becomes a habit, then a habit became a practice.
KB:What are some of your regular writing practices?
LP: Pretty simple: I sit down to it daily. Read. Write. Look out the window. Collect things during the day. Within that frame of commitment, anything can happen. The particular bends and folds and moves and breath marks are probably too idiosyncratic to go into. “I sit down to it daily” means unless life blows things up. Which happens.
KB:Do you typically begin a piece with a word, an image, or a feeling?
LP: I’d have to smack down the notion of “typical”—all of these options you offer are possibilities, though the moment of launch is shimmeringly mysterious at heart. Knowing what starts you up shouldn’t in any way suggest that you then go about tracking that thing/moment/word/procedure, hoping for it to replicate itself. You can set up conditions (quiet, or music, no answering the phone, not checking your email . . .) but being open to a range of entry-points is probably most freeing. I guess “beginning” is a cross between intense discipline and wild acceptance.
KB:Since that evening described in “The Lustres,” you’ve done a lot to shape the world of literary nonfiction, particularly regarding the personal essay. What first prompted you to write essays?
LP: For a short while, when I was first pregnant with our son, it became difficult to write poems, and just to keeping moving, I wrote brief prose sketches. Really, it was a very primitive endeavor—I just looked out the window and wrote what I saw, which often matched up with back-of-the-head thoughts—those roving, hovering notions that are ripe for the picking but need some kind of occasion, something as small as a blowing leaf, to help anchor or snag them. Soon, the state I was in, “with child” as they say, became a natural part of some of these meditations, and I once again felt whole as a writer, able to work from a core that poetry, at that time, wasn’t touching. As soon as the sentence and prose rhythms reconstituted me, the feel for poems came back, and I’ve been writing both simultaneously, ever since.
KB:What feels different or similar to you about writing poems vs. essays?
LP: It’s a kind of sprint-vs.-long-distance thing. Some bodies need both. Others prefer to specialize.
KB:A Rough Likeness opens playfully with “On Coming Back as a Buzzard” in which you take on the persona of, as the title suggests, a buzzard, though you admit that “coming back as a buzzard, has not much to do with buzzards at all.” The essays that follow investigate the “leftovers,” the “something” that lies outside of story. Thus, the essays feel connected; yet, many of them appeared as stand-alone pieces. When did you begin to envision the collection that became A Rough Likeness?
LP: I don’t envision a collection; it’s more that I track certain impulses, pig-after-a-truffle style, find a scent and dig there. Usually one essay seeds the next, or suggests a kindred impulse. So to me, the essays in a collection are intent on waysof seeing and I kind of go on faith that the cohering eye, the central mind of the writer is what holds them together, allows them to function as a coral reef almost—a collection of individual beings also dependent on each other and their collectivity for overall sustenance and health.
KB:Do you complete a singular piece before moving to the next?
LP: I usually have a few pieces going at once, so I can incline toward one or the other, depending how I feel when I wake up in the morning.
KB:Several of the pieces appeared in journals long before they were published this year. Did you revise them in the meantime?
LP: Some were minimally fussed with for publication in Rough Likeness, but by the time I send out a piece, it’s pretty much finished. Sometimes I find an imprecision or a tense that’s flabby or more likely, that I’ve overwritten a thought, and repeated myself and am able to cut back on an effusion.
KB:Do your feelings toward a piece of writing change over time?
LP: As with friends, one can feel inexplicably close to some essays right from the start—who knows why. It’s an immediate draw to their energy, pace, an inquisitiveness of the particularly warm or relentless or deft variety. Usually, for me, the mysterious attachment is a lasting thing, and essays that gave and fed at one time continue to do so.
KB:Your work has been praised for its lyric movement and moments of surprise. Philip Lopate stated that you are “at the forefront of the New Essay.” Where do you see yourself in the larger framework of literary essays?
LP: There has been, recently, a lot of talk about the “renaissance of the essay.” I haven’t really made a practice of tracking the rise and fall of genres, nor do I believe that one genre is ever really in ascendancy or despairing decline. Talk about any kind of surge in vital artistic forms is exciting—it means people are reading with an eye to what a form can do, how it can be expanded and shaped and made to reflect reality, how it can imagine into new ways of being. Rediscovering the essay—considering it anew, hearing beyond anxious childhood associations with the form—all these responses on the part of readers are incredibly healthy. Perhaps the interest in the essay reflects readers’ desire to engage with an intimate form of idea-making that isn’t necessarily memoir-bound. The essay, after all, can do so much . . .
KB:And you find memoir more restrictive?
LP: No, it’s not that. It certainly doesn’t have to be. I just tend to angle away from trends and general procedures—I was rarely able to enjoy or be freed by classroom exercises, for example. I marvel at the utterly fresh work students produce in response to impromptu suggestions and exercises . . . but I couldn’t rally to the occasion; everything I did under such circumstances felt contrived.
KB:Have you ever considered writing a full-length memoir?
LP: Nope. I’m pretty convinced that writers deal with “telling their story” in ways that suit them temperamentally. I’m not really given to the memoir as practiced by the telling of life events, thus the essay, for me, allows for “spots of time” (Wordsworth’s phrase)—those deeply fertile moments that impress on the imagination seem to illustrate my sensibility best.
KB:What do you think is the distinction between memoir and a collection of personal essays?
LP: Well, some collections of autobiographical essays present stand-alone pieces that when read together offer a full view of a life or a life’s issue. A full-length memoir often moves along like a novel, providing all the resting points and chronologies/arcs found in a work of fiction. Essays, as I practice them, are way more about ideas and language, regaining moments that are really hard to pin, the shape and music of a sentence—I’m after a feel for the life in and behind the words, just not in a narrative way. More in the way a poem means and communicates.
KB:What do you consider a lyric essay?
LP: Okay, let me start big here. Both the poetic line and the prose sentence are musical units. Musical units of thought. The writing I’m most drawn to has lyrical qualities, but I’d define that quality broadly. I guess, to me, “lyrical” writing lifts off the page in some playful, curiously angled way . . . some way that’s defined by a writer’s sensibility itself, and thus takes on a living, aural quality. Here’s the thing: I don’t really use the term “lyrical essay.” I really prefer just “essay” to describe what it is I’m up to. The tradition is long and honorable and I don’t feel the need to nichify. To call something a “lyric” essay, from the perspective of a writer, feels . . . presumptuous somehow.
KB:Often, your writing brings to mind notions of risk, of testing what the essay can do: the essays leap from one form to another, from the advice column, to the meditative. They include full-length quotes from Shakespeare and Whitman. They somersault between the meaning and connotations of words like Viennaand shit.The pieces feel playful, mischievous even. Will you talk a little bit about the idea of risk and how it applies to your writing process?
LP: It’s way less a matter of testingwhat the essay can do, from a kind of externalized perspective (i.e. being aware of being risky), and much more about trying to findwhat each piece wants to do, and having to make the form to both hold and express that new thing I’m clueless about at the outset. Inevitably, the stuff readers often cite as “risky” doesn’t strike me that way at all. What’s really risky, I think, for all writers, is staying with a sensation or image or idea that you have no words for at all and are certain is way bigger than you are. Being up against a thing—a sensation, an idea, a whole project unfolding—that you just aren’t at all sure you can make, a thought you aren’t at all sure you can realize (or one that you won’t realize as vital when it’s there in front of you!) is the big, long-term, committed risk of writing.
KB:Several of the essays are openly aware of the thinking process. For example, in “Against ‘Gunmetal’” you illustrate your search for the right term for the sky’s darkening: “The sky turns, towardor into. The sky now. The sky is—what isthe shade, gradient, hue, tint I’m seeing?” This awareness seems inherent to the essay’s quest for meaning, or quest to make meaning. Do you feel that this kind of awareness is essential to the personal essay?
LP: For me, the essay is a place where one can maintain a sense of presence. I want the thought itself there, which of course is an element that one has to balance by acts of conscious shaping, or all would be a blathering early draft. I like most the look of things that maintain some of the marks of their maker—pots, clothing, food—things that hold within themselves the trail back to the creator. Smudges of a certain sort. Fingerprints, breath. Precision, machine-tooled writing, writing that gets the job done, doesn’t allow for a little dirt under its nails . . . that’s not what I’m after and that’s not what feels most achingly human.
KB:Have you felt this way from the beginning or has it taken time to trust the marks of your own making?
LP: The most powerful thing one can teach is that art takes time. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with the practice and the work and to come to understand the language that exists between you and your work, to clarify why something feels new or doesn’t, what it actually feels like to work your way into a language for something that previously didn’t offer itself in language. It’s so much less about “revising” than it is about “learning how to work.” You have to love this kind of work to write. That sounds obvious, but I’ve often wanted to ask people, students, other writers “do you love (i.e. want to wrangle with) what you do? Do you want to be doing this?”
KB:You mentioned earlier that when you revisit a piece you sometimes find that you have “overwritten” a thought. How do you distinguish between clutter and allowing for some dirt under the nails?
LP: Again, this is a matter of sitting-with, day after day, figuring out what kind of balances you want, in terms of lengths of sentences, depth and intensity of descriptions, all other gestures . . . all of which requires a lot of “what if” questioning and curiosity and reading to identify in your own words.
KB: “There Are Things Awry Here” opens with “I found a perimeter, thank God, and I’m walking . . . I am here (quick check: yes, panting and sweaty) but it feels like nowhere, is so without character that the character I am hardly registers at all. So I’ll get to work, in the way I know how.” The essay springs to life in the moment of this walk the way a conversation during a walk might; yet—I assume—you didn’t write it while walking. At least, you didn’t necessarily revise it then. What is your revision process? Do your pieces change much from the initial draft to the final? In other words, how do you refine your pieces while still protecting the integrity of that spur-of-the-moment quality?
LP: I’m usually aware of trying to clarify and deepen, not so much “refine” or even “revise”—each version feels very much like “writing” to me, and not much like “revising.” Of course, radical things can happen, whole chunks, limbs, archipelagoes can fall off or drift away in later versions. I do a lot of work while walking. I bring a pad and pen . . . our dog is so accustomed to my stopping in mid-stride to jot stuff that she now just sits down as soon as she sees the pad come out of my pocket.
KB:Instead of revising something old/already written, you consider each draft fresh writing?
LP: More or less. I have a lousy memory in general, so pieces I sit down to each morning, though I may have worked them over the previous day, tend to feel always-new. Similarly, I’m terrible with jokes, but can hear the same one told ten times because I never remember the punch line. Weaknesses are blessings.
KB:Do you think there is a danger in distinguishing between “writing” and “revising”?
LP: It might be helpful to think of “revising” as a more mechanical set of acts: have I repeated myself in this paragraph, or on pages three and five? Have I used this word fifteen times? Those are important questions and allow for a different part of the brain to make its important contributions.
KB:You teach in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. What advice do you give your students regarding revision?
LP: To train for patience and to listen for opportunities that they haven’t taken yet (which is different than thinking you “need more description in spot x or y”), to listen for openings and for rich and shimmering lines that might have gotten truncated or written over. I think it’s critically important to ask a lot of “what if” questions of yourself as you’re writing. Too often a younger writer (or one who may not be young but is fairly new to writing) wants to fix or add to, and isn’t behaving curiously, isn’t approaching the page with a sense of adventure, with the spirit of and desire for experimentation. With that rare combo of patience and urgency. Asking “what if” as in “what if I did x” keeps open that sense of surprise, as well as the possibility that the foray may need to be scrapped altogether. Wanting to write—to actively be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reading after fact and reason, to use Keats’s definition of Negative Capability—is different than “wanting to get the piece written” or, god help us, published.
KB:Where do you think the temptation to just get a piece written comes from?
LP: Perhaps when one has a sense of the kind of work it takes to write and is daunted by the time and open-endedness of the endeavor and chooses a route that’s smoother, quicker, and offers more of a guarantee for shared understanding with a reader (and this applies to highly abstract language as well, not just “easy” prose). Clichés are a comfort. Abstraction’s another comfort.
KB:How do you respond to student anxiety about getting published?
LP: I think anxious people deserve honest confirmation: the issue of wondering whether or not you’ll be able to share your work with readers, wanting to be read and thus deeply seen, wanting to make something of worth—all of this is fraught with anxiety and desire and hope. I commiserate. Commiseration helps, I think.
KB:Are there specific familiar anxieties that visit during your creative process?
LP: Mostly the issue of time. Having enough open, extended time, not devaluing (accepting) smaller and imperfect increments of time.
KB:In “Jump” you describe yourself as a “passerby, secret entertainer of edges and precipices.” The pieces in this collection are preoccupied with the spaces of time between event, fragments, partialities, what lies between the “folds.” The “something, but not the story.” What questions do you ask yourself that lead to this kind of exploration?
LP: You know, one’s own sensibility is a mystery. I think I’ve left the questions in, so in a very practical way, the best response to your inquiry here could likely be found in the essays themselves. If you mean something more like “what is the impulse behind those questions?” I’d be in wobbly territory if I chanced a response—I’d be, in other words, making stuff up to secure a proper-seeming, well-considered and controlled set of reasons. One that would lead readers to think I understandcertain attractions. And I don’t. So I don’t want to suggest that anyone else should understand their core impulses, or assume another’s procedure (mine included!) is authoritative . . .
KB:Do you seek feedback on your work from other writers?
LP: I have a few true-north types to whom I send work when I need some clear-eyed commentary or when I feel I can’t go any further without having some basic responses to basic questions. It’s important to know your own methods and be responsive to those. Some people send stuff off to readers the minute they complete a first draft; others wait a long while, to establish a sense of closeness to the piece before entertaining too many voices and opinions. I keep my advice-seeking pretty local and spare.
KB:Are there particular landscapes or settings that you find especially conducive to your creative process?
LP: Here, too, I’m pretty simple. I write best in a quiet room. My quiet room, and by quiet I mean with ambient neighborhood and house sounds all around. No music, just regular life. Hotel rooms are okay sometimes, but any productivity there is usually born of attempts to fight the ugliness of those chain hotel landscapes and my own sense of displacement, and make some kind of livable space for eye and heart.
KB:You just won a Guggenheim—congratulations! What’s next for you?
LP: I’m drawn to ruined things, compromised land, to the stories buried or hidden within those places, to trying to make some kind of sense of how we move through environments that are devastatingly ugly and overbuilt and not spiritually sustaining. I’m interested in finding language for sensations and states of being that I, as of now, have no language for. The drive I feel most urgently: to look hard at that which has been ruined, to look at the systems I/we all participate in, light these realities up, and speak to what might be done, to what remystifying, resacrilizing (to borrow the excellent terms of friends) might look like.
A Rough Likeness is available in paperback from Sarabande Books for $15.95.
Kathleen Blackburn is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review and River Teeth.
by Lia Purpura
When the snow began to melt, the drifts left behind a surprising collection of junk—paper cups, socks, Matchbox trucks, a snarl of CAUTION–POLICE–CAUTION tape, pinkly wrapped tampons, oil-rag-T-shirts, banana peels: intimacies of toy box, bathroom, and garage amid the lumps of sand and salt we threw down for traction. It was as if after the big event of snowfall we’d forgotten there was more, still, to be said. A cache of loose details below to attend. A trove poised. A stealth gathering.
Deposition below the singular-seeming white cover.
I shall make my own study of snow and time. I will learn from that which has built the very ground I’m now slipping around on: glaciers. Their formative act: deposition, for example: fine-grained rock debris, rock flour, and coarse rock fragments picked up or entrained within the base of a glacier and then transported and deposited from either active or stagnant ice. This product of glacial deposition, known as till, consists of particles that follow complicated routes, being deposited on the top or along the sides of the glacier bed, entrained again, and finally dropped. As a sediment, till has certain distinctive features: it exhibits poor sorting, is usually massive, and consists of large stones in a fine matrix of minerals and rock types.
Poor sorting: I like that: that it all gets dropped, the big stuff enmeshed with the grainy soft stuff. The indiscriminate mess. That it forms a long train, so that seeing it all, one can trail events back. Guess at them. View time. And by way of the whole scattered and shifting pattern, by the gathering eye, make something of these loose details, collecting.
Deposition on Thaw
I will note, though its impetus was warmth, the sharpness of the thaw. During the thaw we were given to see the way snow melted into vertebrae, whole bodies of bone inclined toward one another. Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious. Forms arced over the sewer grates and curbs as the gutter streamed with bubbly melt. What remained were not yet remains. It was clear how the warmth would eat everything down, but where some parts were colder than the rest, that core kept the figure upright. The shapes were knife-edged, hunched, easing a pain; they grayed and were everywhere pocked with dirt, and unlikely in their strength.
A few days later, just sheering, frayed patches covered the ground, and the elbows of everything poked through. White remained where the ground must have been colder, or wind blew and packed the snow hard.
How to read a land?
There were thicknesses, white places layered in smears that others were trained to read. Densities amid the rivulets of veins. Occlusions. Artifacts.
I remember, about the X-ray, thinking Artifacts? That sounds harmless. Evidence of some action past—a little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study. Vase, mirror, tile. Lip of a cup. A thing that remained to be found and told. An image that sings about time.
Deposition on the Shapes of Tasks
Waiting all that long week—for test results, the snow to stop, dough to rise, nightfall—small tasks turned into days. Days unfolded into tasks. The inside-out arms of clothes pulled right, made whole and unwrinkled, took lovely hours. Tasks filled like balloons and rounded with breath; they floated and bumped around the day: some popcorn, some dishes, some mending. And though dressing for sledding, undressing and draping everything wet over radiators was deliberate, a stitch ran through, jagged and taut, cinching the gestures tight with uncertainty. Everything coming down—snow, sleet, threat, delicacy—twined through like a rivulet (the cut water makes in its persistence, its pressure carving) so the bank grows a dangerous, fragile lip. The work of glaciers changes a landscape: old stream valleys are gouged and deepened, filled with till and outwash. Filled, of course, over millions of years. In sand-grain, fist-sized increments.
This kind of time illuminated tasks that one would hardly be given to see otherwise. Titled them, even: the scraping of old wax from candlesticks, the tightening of loosened doorknobs. Oil-soaping the piano keys.
Deposition on Fevers and Still Lifes
That week time was ample, broad as a boulevard, a stroll, a meander. Not a tour. Not a map or a path to be found. School was canceled. Scents fully unfolded: coffee, chocolate, and milk marbling together on the stove, thinnest skin across to touch and lift and eat. And like a concentrate of heat itself, my bounded sight burned holes in the things most fixed upon: the ceiling’s old butterfly water stain. One rough, gritty chip in the rim of a favorite cup.
It was in this way that joy and severity flared everywhere: along the banks of steep places I went to quickly, glanced, then ran from. They burned together in cornmeal in a pour, the yellow dust that rose and stuck to my hands as I folded in the unbeaten eggs, cold suns to poke and dim with flour—as outside, too, the cold sun dimmed, and the sky sifted and shushed down.
Yes, that week passed with a fever’s disheveled clarity. That time, its atmosphere, moved the way fevers by turn dilute and intensify moments, so by evening one cannot reconstitute the day and calls it “lost,” calls it “flown,” says after a night’s sleep “what happened to the day?” Things that week were touched in sweaty uncertainty and weakly released. There were intimacies akin to falling back to a pillow after water, soup, and tea were brought, gratitude unspoken; the night table’s terrain, the book, the book’s binding, glue at the binding and the word for each sewn section, folio, surfacing from far off. The sheet’s silk piping to idly slip a finger under for coolness.
In its riotous stillness, that week was a study: Dutch, seventeenth century, with its controlled and ordered high flare and shine. Days held the light and feverish presence of a bowl of lemons in pocked disarray. Always one lemon pared in a spiral of undress, its inner skin gone a flushed, sweet-cream rose. Always the starry, cut sections browning, and the darkness, just beyond the laden table, held almost successfully off. I, with my props—mixing bowl, dough—tilted toward, soaked in late afternoon light, while time raged all around in shadow, the dark stroking cup, quartered fig, plate of brilliant silver sardines left on the counter from lunch.
Deposition on Millennia/Effluvia
To say “a glacier formed this land” sanctifies the blink of an eye.
To see, from the air, glacial streams and think like a snake or ribboning, and of the land on either side accordion or fan colludes against awe. Neatens up the work of time. Makes of time a graven thing, handsculpted, carved, and held. Time should seize, should haul us back, then let go, wind-sheared into now, breathlessly into the moment’s hard strata. Each morning in Rome, my old friend runs in a park along the aqueduct, which breaks and restarts in yellowed fields, its arches sprouting wild grasses, its arches collapsing, the houses, apartments, roads of his neighborhood visible through it, as they have been for nearly 2,000 years. You can sit on rocks in Central Park, soft outcrops undulant as sleeping bodies, formed tens of thousands of years ago, and look up at the city skyline knowing the North American ice sheet flowed exactly that far south. Or hold in your hand a striated stone from Mauritania, abraded at the base of a glacier 650 million years ago, and touch the markings, those simple scratches so easily picked up and put down again on the touch-me table at the museum. Kick any stone beneath your foot, here, in Baltimore, and you’re scuffing 300 million, even a billion years of work.
I cast back for any one thing I did on any one day that week: how unencumbered the brushing of my hair, the perfect scrolls of carrot peel I lowered like a proclamation into the hamsters’ cage; careless grace of understatement, luxury of simple gesture after gesture (fork to mouth, mouth to glass, fork and glass rinsed in the sink, and—linger here, see the heat pulling fog up the glass, atilt and cooling in the drainboard). I’m calling up the tongue-and-groove gestures, the hook-and-eye moments of the day, so they might again spend themselves freely, mark the layers of events en route, classify the waiting. Cajoled from somewhere back in the morning, the peeling of that tangerine (cut thumb plunged into the yielding core, stinging and wet and red) comes forth.
I am recalling such occasions for attention offered in a day I was free to ignore. And now, am not free at all (for this is a deposition): cutting burnt crust away; snagging a sock on a rough stair plank; digging a sliver of dirt from a nail under running water. I am tied to the sight of the world, to things burnished and scoured by use, and by their diminution loved—as I so loved and saved my grandmother’s wooden cooking spoon, older than me, smooth as driftwood, when to relieve her boredom, her aide used it to plant and prop a geranium on the balcony. The spoon has folded into its profile, has tucked within it, englaciated, the rim of the aluminum roasting pan (why that of all the nicked sauce pans and ceramic bowls of creamy batters tapped and tapped and tapped against?). I took and washed (as my grandmother no longer can wash) its singed rack burns, its smooth neck, thinned from lifting huge roasts by their taut white lacings.
One idly picks up pinecones, rocks, shells to mark a moment, to commemorate time. One picks them up because they shine out from their mud, or water lapping brightens their veins and shorn faces, or there they are, wedged inexplicably whole in a jetty, and a spiral tip beckons, though the center be partial and broken.
Deposition on Watches
That week my watch broke, so I borrowed my son’s digital Monsters, Inc. strap-on. But I missed the clean, white face of my old one, its celestial circular sweep. The digital time that came to replace it dosed its minutes, shifted its numbers too economically one into the next, the angular 2 and angular 5 simple mirror images, a single bar across the middle making the 0 an 8. Then, as the days without schooltime unwound and were lashed together instead by flares of fear, spots of love, solemn noon bell at the cathedral, all the morning’s held breath, all the whites piling, like suds, their calm expanse up, it was easy to wear no watch at all. But I have not become a person divested of watches. I miss the circle’s perpetuity, dawn and dusk sharing the same space, if only for minutes. The hour pinning itself to the changing light of seasons.
The watch I want now—I saw a picture of it yesterday—posits a looker at the center, who to properly see the numbers would have to turn and face each one: already by 2 the numbers start to tilt so that the 6 is a 9 if you’re outside looking in. But a 6 if you’re in the middle. I like to think of standing in the center, arms reaching out and brushing all the minutes and hours.
I like the idea of turning to face the hour, having the hours arrayed around me. From a still point, having to face the increments of a day.
Deposition on Failure
Last May, I remember, on this very sidewalk: a fly’s soap-bubble, gasoline colors; taut grimace on the face of a baby bird, that hatched and unliving, ancient, pimpled bud on the grass; corms of daylilies, and “corm” itself that most perfect union of “corn” and “worm,” meaning exactly the thick, stubborn grub I hacked to separate. I remember the ripe, raw, shivery scents.
But during this thaw, come on so fast now—just for a day, just for caprice, it was 60 degrees.
And when I went out walking and the sun was so soft—an assertion, bravura. Where warmth thawed the planes of bone like a high bank, my face was a running stream again. I took off my mittens and left them in the crook of a tree; it always takes a few days to believe the warmth.
The snow receded, the warmth returned, and I was fine. I was negative. Negative, negative, I was thinking, buoyant. The hard winter lifted all at once, the sun came, dewy and beading, the air was sweet and I was fine—oh burgeoning cliché I entertained, cannot believe I entertained: spring bearing its blood-tide and life all abloom, all’s well ending well in a spate, a thrall of undulant weather, et cetera. Rising, on cue, such music as dripping icicles conduct, such shine and promise, oh window of light on the nibbled Red Delicious little Sam just dropped. And the neighbors’ voices carrying, the out-of-doors voices lofting, reconfiguring again the space between our houses: it was New World Symphony, English horn-solo-fresh. I was a turning season, a spit of land at low tide, a window thrown open. Would you believe it if I told you (told unto you, lo! for real) I saw a butterfly—and it was corn-yellow? I resisted the easy convergence—spring, warmth, I’m fine—not a bit, and I knew that to be an indulgence, a failure, partial sight. As if I had come to the brightness of that day wholly—wholly—from dark.
But I cannot forget, for this is a deposition, that all that dark week there was this, too: the diamond-blue light at each drift’s core. My husband’s abundant embrace. Sanctum of my child under quilts. In candlelight, sewing the ghost. Folding a swan. With books, in the folds of a story. Our son, himself, that most beloved unfolding.
And the color of the sky: workshirt-turned-inside-out, and the gray of our house against it, a darker inner seam, revealed. Our house an object that light chose for lavishing, a river stone eddied into calm. The tender crack in a baking loaf, its creamy rift rough at the edges and going gold. Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.
Lia Purpura’s collection of essays, Increase, won the AWP Prize in Nonfiction, and her poetry collection, Stone Sky Lifting, won the Ohio State University Press Award. She was awarded a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Prose and is writer-in-residence at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. (10/2004)