On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura

I felt I might be tested on the things I saw.

Lia Purpura’s On Looking is an collection of essays that are unrelated, but for their preoccupation with looking and seeing. It’s an interesting look at collecting essays: some of these do not make obvious their obsession, except by proximity with the others. It’s an effect that builds. I like it.

Purpura’s language is lyric, which is often difficult to make clear meaning of – words go together that we don’t expect, which slows down this literal-minded reader. There is undeniable music and rhythm to the language, but also meaning available, if one slows down.

The opening essay, “Autopsy Report,” I’ve read before. It’s beautiful. It is absolutely about looking – a fine way to begin this collection – about really seeing when so many would turn away. (Some readers may wish to turn away. It gives the fine details of bodies literally split open.) This is definitely one of my favorites of the book, and a representative sample, although I suppose it is also clearer in its language than some that follow, and therefore a bit more accessible.

Another favorite was “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie,” which identifies itself as a list essay.

(A list, after all, is an incantation. In a list of likenesses, each element, each peculiarity gathers, leans into and flicks on the light in the room of the next one. The elements loop and knot forth like a net, band as a colony of frost or coral reaching, suggesting not so much a progression as a collective tendency toward. And taken together, the elements offer the assurance of a stance: here is a way to speak of this lightest, barely perceptible–in this case–space. From here I can count and collect that which stirs, and has always stirred me.)

A list inches one closer. Hints along.

Recognize my lists-and-things obsession here, which is of course related to a looking-and-seeing obsession. What follows is a series of spaces and things considered for whether they can count or cannot count as sugar eggs. Sugar eggs for the narrator are sacred spaces… “a space that makes a place for thought, an air considerably pure in which objects–say, sugar bushes, sugar trees–grown precise in their stilled distance.” The specialness of sugar eggs is hard to pin down: Purpura has spent a beautiful essay working on it, and I’m not sure I can sum it up. I’m not even sure I entirely understand it; but I had a lovely time following her parsing of what does and does not qualify.

Another favorite essay was “Coming to See,” which turns out to be a memorial. It’s a series of fragments, about looking through a window and wanting a better, clearer frame for the view (subjects I have played with too); only on the essay’s third page do we learn that the narrator has a friend who is dying. This friend is scarcely mentioned throughout, but it becomes clear that she is what the narrator’s anxiety of seeing is all about. Again, the memorial is something I’ve attempted, but it’s hard to get it right. This is an unusual, touching take on it. By almost entirely eliding the true subject, Purpura gets at the emotional heart without predictable sentimentality or cliché.

There is more, much more; it is so dense. From here I will give you a few favorite lines.

The epigraph, by Goethe:

Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.

From “The Pin”:

But while we stayed, we stayed because we were protected by a curiosity so certain of its task, that things–boots, mail, pots, our bodies–offered themselves, first tentatively and then with urgency, as if for us alone, solicitous as all objects of adoration, as all objects in stories lure us, irresistible and catalytic.

All objects in stories lure us. My thesis, if you will.

And finally, from “On Looking Away: A Panoramic,”

I believe in the circle.

It’s funny the things that resonate with us. Another reader would have read this book and marked entirely different lines, I’m sure.

Perhaps this book should be read alongside Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, for its attention to attention. And in fact perhaps that comparison is useful: I had to read Doty’s book twice (and repeatedly after that) to begin to get it. These are dense, rich texts, about abstract things even while they’re about very literal, physical things as well.

Worth your time.


Rating: 8 ships in bottles.

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