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On Looking: Essaysby Lia Purpura
Synopses & Reviews
Lia Purpura's daring new book of lyric essays, On Looking, is concerned with the aesthetics and ethics of seeing. In these elegantly wrought meditations, patterns and meanings emerge from confusion, the commonplace grows strange and complex, beauty reveals its flaws, and even the most repulsive object turns gorgeous. Purpura's hand is clearly guided by poetry and behaves unpredictably, weaving together, in one lit instance, sugar eggs, binoculars, and Emerson's words: "I like the silent church before the sermon begins."
In "Autopsy Report," Purpura takes an intimate look at the ruin of our bodies after death, examining the "dripping fruits" of organs and the spine in its "wet, red earth." A similar reverence is held for the alien jellyfish in "On Form," where she notes that "in order to see their particular beauty...we have to suspend our fear, we have to love contradiction." Her essays question art and its responses as well as its responsibilities, challenge familiar and familial relationships, and alter the borders between the violent and the luminous, the harrowing and the sensual.
Above all, Purpura's essays are a call to notice. She is writer-as-telescope, kaleidoscope, microscope, and mirror.As she says: "By seeing I called to things, and in turn, things called me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare." This is, indeed, a rare and startling treasure of a book.
"Looking, Purpura writes, is a way of paying attention; it is an almost spiritual practice, and it was 'the sole practice I had available to me as a child.' In these 18 pieces, the essayist (Increase) looks at colors (brown and red seem to be favorites), at shape and time, at dead bodies, weather, fear. The most trenchant essay muses about women being seen. These pieces are not so much essays as prose poems, lyrical hymns to beauty and aesthetics. Purpura describes single objects beautifully: Chinese lanterns are 'those orange, papery pods gone lacy in fall, with a dim, silver berry burning inside.' Though her putative topic is the visual, Purpura also ponders language, explaining word games and playing with the precision of diction (which verb best describes the things you do to drapes, she wonders: do you draw them, shut them or pull them?). Indeed, Purpura's prose is sometimes a tad too opaque: 'If I can call the pin image, memento, moment suspended, then the whole northeastern Ohio sky draws close....' This slim volume requires careful, slow parsing, but readers who persevere will be rewarded with Purpura's deep intelligence." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Purpura is the real deal, and so is every successive sentence in this collection. A cornucopiac vocabulary is married to a strict economy of expression; an offbeat curiosity is married to the courage of difficult witnessing." Albert Goldbarth
"Purpura's prose is a system of delicate shocks-leaps and connections and syncopated revelations, all in the service of the spirit negotiating the truth of its experience." Sven Birkerts
"With grace, candor, and restraint, Purpura muses over what catches the eye and why, the sensation of being seen, the nature of invisibility, and the act of looking away. But most of all, she looks to connection and love." Booklist
Purpura's beautifully wrought second collection of lyric essays, addressing the ethics and aesthetics of seeing.
About the Author
Lia Purpura is the author of Increase (essays), Stone Sky Lifting (poems), The Brighter the Veil (poems), and Poems of Grzegorz Musial: Berliner Tagebuchand Taste of Ash (translations). Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Agni, DoubleTake, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is Writer-in-Residence at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, and teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program in Tacoma, Washington.
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