Lia Purpura, Rough Likeness: Essays, Sarabande Books, 2011

[Review Guidelines]

There are so many ways to respond to Lia Purpura's "Rough Likeness: Essays." At pettiest, it is easy to feel—while moving, dizzy and giddy, through her searchings and findings of near-perfectly evocative words for the smallest moments and sensations——'These are the sorts of sentences I wish I'd written.'" It's tempting, also, to fling the book aside and venture headlong into the great full world she conjures, try to snatch up some of those bright "microdramatic" experiences and feel them in real life as acutely as Purpura's language conjures them. But then, one feels the best course is to simply keep reading, feeling the spinning way she moves from moment to moment, her evocations no rough likenesses at all, though it's an argument she often makes, but rather sharp, clear renderings of the "scraps and dark meat," the "shreds and overlooked tendernesses...carefully, singularly gathered," the "brief moments that burst," which are the stuff of these essays.
     Purpura's essays embody the struggle between precision and the impossibility of using language precisely as one wishes to. She captures that exquisitely uncomfortable writer's impulse to say rather than simply to be, a war addressed head-on in several of the essays here. In "Against 'Gunmetal,'" the attempt merely to capture the color of the sky becomes a question of why she is so entangled in that sky, in its color. Discussing the cliché descriptor gunmetal for a dreary sky, she asks:

Why erase it, though? Why deny the relief of a shared, common phrase—novelistically charged, not the worst imaginable? You know gunmetal and I know gunmetal: why not meet there?

But of course, we cannot meet there; we must find, first, what gunmetal implies, turn the steely implement itself over in our hands and look at it against the sky, explore "Keystone, Gauntlet, Cloak, Summit, Uncertain, Vast, and Repose" and discard them all, try on "good old 'gray' as a suffix, but hitch it to actions like torque-, welter-, and brim-. Coruscate-, grizzle-, rave-, solder-, convulse."
     Indeed, it is often as if Purpura has brought her language into being for the first time, her descriptions so open-ended and adventurous. In "The Lustres," Purpura details her first encounters with the way language can be invented and bent, so that Vienna means the space through the neighbor's window where others move in impossible-to-imagine ways, can be "distance and its complications." Sublime, in this space, is "chased grays and lit hurricane greens," sublime is bread and tomatoes from a grandmother's garden, and bower is two enamel-painted lovers before a hazy, far-off castle. These associations, those that spring to life in words before language has had time to become fixed and unwavering in young minds, are brought back to life in Purpura's capable hands.
     So focused is Purpura on words and sentences, how they come into being and what they can do, that her essays become physical, forest-dense, her language a place to enter. She conjures up the language of children, the discovery of sound and meaning and how the two wind together into one inhabitable space: her words are words you can crawl inside of. Describing her discovery of this physicality words have, she writes:

Very early, I embarked on this task in its simplest form, by unspooling words: I'd hold one in my mouth and repeat it over and over, letting incantation mow down sense, so the phonemes marked a spot, trampled the ground, lit a fire and purified themselves into rote, risen things.

     Because they are concerned with language and the ways in which it illuminates and also obscures, Purpura's essays often show something of the scaffolding of their creation, the bringing-into-being of words on a page. In "There are Things Awry Here," language becomes a means of situating herself in an alien landscape, the "big lots with big box stores" of suburban Tuscaloosa. Setting out to find some "before" for the land now "capped, crusted, contained" by endless blacktop, she comes across the magazines written by the British Cadet Class 42E stationed at the Alabama Institute of Aeronautics in 1942. Their words, a narrative superimposed upon scorched, storyless land, situate her in a "here." And the writing of their "here," and of her own, reveals language as a means of finding a place and time, of feeling a part of it and sinking down into it, being here, or somewhere, catching onto something real, or at least a rough likeness of it. [HPW]