by Lia Purpura
Sarabande Books, 2011
978-1936747030, 224 pp., $15.95 paperback
Rough Likeness, Lia Purpura's latest book, is an eclectic collection of essays and an attempt at explaining the mundane, the ordinary, and the things that do not usually populate dinner table conversations but are nevertheless part of the everyday imagination and life. Take the first essay, for instance, on buzzards: Why do we ignore the buzzard, she asks? A bird that does the job nobody else is prepared to do. I haven't killed a thing, the buzzard implores. Why see me as malevolent? "That no one wants my job that I go on being needed." In the essay titled "Against Gunmetal," Purpura laments about why some choose to describe shades of gray as gunmetal or as battleship gray. "Strike me down if I use it again. If I don't, right now, erase this method by which we impart, those of us who know nothing about guns, drama to a sky, pressure to a scene, hardness, knowhow, coldness to a description, glad for its hint of treachery, its sidelong, thanatotic meanness." Laziness in language and expression is something the author abhors, and is a theme that surfaces in other essays as well.
Purpura's prose is at once rich, lyrical, sudden, and provocative. Through her writing, she invites the reader to do what she does—provide everything you do, see, touch, or feel with the uniqueness of observation and attention that it deserves: "Here is a field between parking lots—real grass and dirt with bottles thrown in, amber longnecks, flat clears of hard stuff."
In the essay titled "Jump," Purpura ponders over the intentions behind a signpost that reads "Last Death from Jumping or Diving from Bridge June 15, 1995."
Her reflective essays then are an essay (pun intended) into the layers folded under and between the everyday occurrences, the random signposts, the street signs, the buzzards flying overhead or the words attributed to colors (why gunmetal for gray?).
Rough Likeness can be savored whole or in bits, read from beginning to end or from the middle backwards. Purpura's writing is such that even without context, the prose is beautiful, to be enjoyed much like a Dali painting, different vantage points allowing for varied appreciation of the artwork.
That the author is also a poet is evident in the lyricisms and incantations in the writing, as when she describes a street as "that echt yellow stripe, those newly dribbled tar snakes filming cracks, curbs darkened with rain, fickle puddles, passing cars launching watery stars out of low spots to firmanents elsewhere."
The brilliance of Purpura's writing is such that even though her subjects in the essays may be ordinary (in the most fundamental sense of the word), in the rendering of the mundane as sublime and as that demanding acute and singular observation, she demands, nay commands the reader's absolute attention.—Girija Sankar