Lia Purpura, On Looking: Essays, Sarabande Books, 2006

Nicole Walker

[Review Guidelines]

Line of sight, in your sight, at the end of a scope—Lia Purpura's essays fold layers of vision into solid beams of precision. In her essay "On Aesthetics," Purpura provides a metaphoric key instructing readers how to read this book. She describes a baby who sits on his mother's lap while the neighbor boys across the street draw a bead on his head—the red eye of the rifle scope marks the baby's forehead: "The laser on the baby's head was a cherry lozenge, a button, a tack. The color of holly berries, chokeable, dangerous, we keep from our son." Associations here are fluid, circumscribed, and dangerous. The language is poetry's process of accumulation, but it is in the folding that makes these pieces essays. The book enacts its aesthetic by circumscribing, cutting, outlining its vision rather than explicating, connecting or declaring. When Purpura successfully aligns our sight with hers, the combined power of that vision evokes much more than image. For instance, in the essay "The Smallest Woman in the World," Purpura imagines what her son saw at the carnival when he peeked to see that small woman. Purpura hopes he doesn't notice the wheelchair in the corner. She hopes the woman doesn't see him looking at her. She hopes he doesn't connect his looking with her brokenness. But the brokenness infests. It becomes part of her son: "When will I stop thinking of her?" he asks and asks until it becomes clear that the process of his looking is the inverse of her looking back at him—the beam of precision cutting both ways.
      These essays tend not to reveal as much about the eye of the beholder as they do the object beheld. In "On Hurting a Fly: A Memorial," Purpura claims affinity with Kim Phuc: "her body is mine. 1972. I saw the burning girl, stilled on TV, motionless, running, running and crying and knew that was me in Vietnam." The momentum of the language and the precision in the image sweep me along so that I am willing to grant Purpura the transubstantiation. I understand, through the repetition of "running" and then "running and crying" the transposition of body for self. Yet, on the next page, when she describes the Vietnam memorial that goes on and on seemingly forever, as long as Kim Phuc is running, Purpura writes: "It takes me no time to find my birthday, and it is no one's death day." The habit of referring object to self is understandable. But if these equivalencies are made: your body for my body, your day of (not) death for my day of birth, then why the reluctance to share the specificity of that day, that number? Purpura's language is her scissor and her sword. She's careful to point the sharp edges away from herself.
      Still, albeit a safe distance from which she watches, Purpura does her looking with an amazing capacity to see the unseen, to bring word to the unspoken. Looking with precision, these essays argue, focuses the blurry. While that precision is often as removed as a surgeon's scalpel, the lines cut sharply and viscerally. She writes, "In Bosch's hell, being unseen is a sickening constant: the action's all tripping, spilling and cracking—all the bent bodies make a writhing mosaic—but no one is watching anyone else." For these essays, the most ethical response is an aesthetical one. Redemption comes from looking. Just look, she pleads.