Lia Purpura is much taken with words and looking, weaving interactions, themes, the body ... and things that happen to the body: spinal fusion (she had one), stumps (she had a boyfriend with them ... "an antic boy with a raucous good-humor"), a dead horsefly, trauma, suicide.
"Purpura" means "purple"in Spanish but her essays are far from purple prose:
At one time I would go so far as to get out of the tub to better hear my neighbors fighting. I'd reach, dripping and freezing, over the toilet and open the window to listen more closely. I'd wish away the noisy trains coupling down the street.
Noisy trains. Coupling. Like couples coupling. Noisily.
And we know --- she's a self-conscious writer --- that when she brings up something off-the-wall (stumps), later on, a few lines or paragraphs or pages later, she will explain.
"How does the guy with hooks for arms jerk off?" That's the way she starts out "On Form." Then she says, "But it didn't come forth as a joke. Nor was the answer "very carefully." (Reviewer's note: in the old days, that was the answer to the riddle of how porcupines make love.)"More powerfully, there was his face, a face used to seeing questions like this in others' faces." In this eight-page essay she goes on to tell of getting lost in Cambridge, meeting a kid that spits as he talks, seeing the lopsided face on a woman at the fall festival.She is reminded of Botticelli's picture of St. Sebastian, relates the trauma of her operation ("my spine fused and fixed in place with metal rods"), notes a woman with a half-arm which she hides in a rolled-up newspaper. Finally, there's the girl with a port-wine birthmark, a friend in Warsaw with a "wandering eye," "a boil; a split thumbnail with its crescent of dirt, next to which your own nail rests on the cool, aluminum pole." Detail woven into detail with more detail --- a veritable love-nest of freaks. The ancient movie, Freaks turns up in a later essay.
Purpura knows words, and can catch us with them. But sometimes she can get carried away, they feed on themselves, turn and intertwine, but seem to go nowhere, especially in the longer pieces here, and more so (I found) if you are not in the mood for a leisurely exploration of people and ideas, the strange mix of strangenesses and commonalty: the small towns in New England, a sniper, clouds on the horizon, a squashed frog, a horsefly (dead, dried up), a table full of food in a farmhouse in Poland, her habit of picking up metal washers on the streets of Baltimore, New York, Columbus. It can just get too rich...
...then you are with her in Warsaw, and she tells, calmly, of her friend who "jumped from the roof" of her building and she can imagine the surrounding apartments "flat-roofed and blocky" and the knife-grinder on the street below, "The long whine as he'd hold the blades to the stone."
Then the noise growing faint as he pushed his cart on to the next courtyard and the next.
The knife-grinder. His tools of trade, and the sharp, very sharp knives. And a young lady, finally, at the edge, "A holy send-off" ... "The street would be clear. She would carry ID."--- Lolita Lark