Melissa Haley inhabits the wandering mind of Lia Pupura in her newest collection Rough Likeness: Essays. To read Lia Purpura’s essays is to be drawn into her geography. As I make my way through her latest collection, Rough Likeness, small details in my daily world begin to impress themselves on me more. The murmur of the radio coming up through the bathroom floor, from the elderly woman’s apartment below (playing what sounds like old-fashioned radio programs- or maybe I am projecting). The way it reminds me of the room I had in college, on the ninth floor of a creepy residence hotel, where, whenever I stepped through the bathroom door it seemed I could hear the chatter of the neighbor’s parakeet coming up through the floor. Even if the bird was silent, I’d hear it: in the pink bathtub there, soaking in warm water with book and wine. The past and the present converge in many of Purpura’s lyrical essays—a form which she has said in an interview at Smartish Place, that she wishes “to remain as mysterious as possible.” Purpura, an essayist and poet, as been experimenting with this form for some time now. Her last collection of essays, On Looking, played with this mysterious form, each essay conjuring the subtlety of a poet’s ear with the meditative and idiosyncratic moves of a essayist. Like that earlier collection, this one engages in that space between language and looking, between past and present.
It was how she made the past felt in the present through memory, research, signs that drew me in. In “Being of Two Minds,” she writes: “I am fed best by what is left behind. Detritus, loved and held, picked through... I’d do well as a crow or vulture, cleaning, paring, finding succulent what has been overlooked and is moldering.” As an archivist myself, I respond to Purpura’s love of detritus, scraps, and those small moments and how they invoke pieces of stories. Working in archives, one learns that those scraps have meaning, that they are often the only trace of a person’s existence. Whatever it is—an entry in a fading hospital register, a deposition in an 18th century assault case, a receipt for shoes—these fragments are evidence of someone’s history.
In my favorite essays in the collection, “Jump” and “Something is Awry Here,” Purpura goes searching for the true story of what happened in a particular locale. In “Jump” a small sign on a bridge sparks her investigation. The sign reads: “Last Death from Jumping or Diving from Bridge, June 15, 1995.” The sign becomes the occasion for a mediation, an attempt by Pupura to construct a narrative, for, as she reflects, “without a story, the fragments won’t settle.” She imagines that “last death” in many scenarios, researching like a journalist or a detective for clues. Locals are spoken to; research reveals what really happened. In the end, Purpura acknowledges her telling is incomplete, that “most moments of the story called ‘Last Death from Jumping or Diving’ are unmarked still, not fully gathered, barely asserted. Only lightly sketched in.” But the fragments stand, the effort to piece them together a story of its own.
In “Something is Awry Here” a banal suburban landscape—chain hotel, strip mall, asphalt and bland grass—is given new life by the past, in the form of the World War II era Institute of Aeronautics that once existed there. In a local library, Purpura finds the magazine created by the British cadets who trained at the institute, full of observations of their American sojourn, their memories of England. Their presence feels real to her. I understood this recall of the past in my work in the archives, holding a hand-written letter with a lock of hair tucked inside. Layers of time exist simultaneously, and converge in details.
Perhaps I have not described Purpura’s writing style clearly. They often challenge easy description. I have mentioned the scraps, the memories. The Past. The weaving of images. Many small things. In one essay, “Being of Two Minds,” all of the following make an appearance: a playing field, a yellow rose, autopsies, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, a stranger on an airplane, old friends, animals’ jawbones, Ethan Frome, an imagined reindeer the size of a lemon, an old man praying in the woods beside a fallen log, a razor, Freud, a found letter from a Jehovah’s witness, the Reader, Proust on asparagus. The reading of Purpura’s essays sometimes reminds me of experiencing the works of artist Janet Cardiff, whose site-specific walking pieces use fragments of stories, memories of past events, everyday details and sounds to make the Experiencer (for lack of a better term) feel that the quotidian is alive and shimmering, if just for a moment.
One affect of Rough Likeness is that of a wandering mind. Not in a bad way (as in what to eat for dinner, or did I mail the rent?), but really in the best way of wandering. Here is one image that came to mind as I read along: a recent glimpse from an elevated subway train of someone flicking ash from a cigarette out of an apartment window. Which made me think of how sometimes, from this same elevated train (the number 7, Times Square to Flushing) you can sometimes see the lights of the planes lined up across the sky, on their descent into LaGuardia Airport. I remembered also a collection of photographs I put together many years back, all of abandoned shacks. I was also reminded of finding an injured bat on the sidewalk once, on my way to work in Manhattan. It seemed the bat had hit a skyscraper. It still makes me sad when I remember how people just stepped over it or walked right past. I didn’t know what to do for the poor bat and so I left too.
“It’s a small thing that holds me,” Purpura writes. Perhaps she would approve of the kind of wandering that I was increasingly drawn to the more I read her essays, the more she reminded me of how much a moment, a fragment can evoke?
In several essays Purpura returns to her grandmother’s house, to the fragments of what she can recall from the place. In “The Lustres,” the house comes alive through a string of remembered details: “Some bathroom nymphs. Melon balls in translucent bowls. A glass butter dish... On the mantle, a pair of porcelain doves.” Through the memories of the train whistles heard from bed and the feeling they evoked of being in “anotherelsewhere.” From such details, Purpura draws larger lessons she learned from the house’s architecture:
“The walk through the house after coming downstairs, from kitchen, through fitting/dining room to porch, contained the barest shifts of atmosphere--the way crossing a border makes a trip into a journey. Makes it undertaken. Thus I learned to travel in a very small place.”
This domestic landscape returns me to my own grandmother’s house. It comes back to me through a tube of Pepsodent toothpaste, some tiny false teeth on a bridge, a pair of dull scissors with a teal-colored handle. A drawer full of saved wrapping paper and ribbons from opened gifts, carefully folded for reuse. The ironing board that folded out from inside the kitchen wall. The desk with drawers of playing cards and cribbage boards, where no one ever sat. Whole parts of rooms, in fact, where no one ever sat (children can always lay claim to these spaces). I think of the strange mix of things I came away with, after my grandmother died and I helped my father and aunt go through the house. Summer dresses with colorful flowers, piles of photographs, an enema kit in a metal tin, a sewing box, hairpins. I got a handbag, some sunglasses, a black skirt, all of which I wore and used until they broke or wore through—I was young then and didn’t think to preserve them.
It occurs to me as I write this that my grandmother’s house was so often darkness. The upstairs bedrooms had dormers and the windows seemed far away; rows of African violets stole the light in the dining room. There were awnings, shades, and looming pines around most windows, and even the so-called “sun room” with its row of windows opened directly out onto a steep rock with trees above. My grandmother’s house had the feel of someone who lived alone.
So I guess I would like to thank Purpura for these journeys she offers, through her “slantwise places,” her “scraps and spots, moment and lustres passing and glimpsed sidelong,” the mental wanderings she provoked with each essay and each paragraph. Purpura has me hearing birds where they don’t exist.
Melissa Haley is an archivist at The New York Public Library, currently working on a Civil War project. Her essays have appeared in Common-place, The American Scholar, Post Road, and Raritan Quarterly.