Lia Purpura’s “On Looking”

By Kevin Prufer

Today's posts will focus on Lia Purpura's “On Looking,” a finalist for the 2006 NBCC Award in criticism. 

ON LOOKING IS A HARD BOOK TO CATEGORIZE. Lia Purpura's sense of the intricate rhythms of language, her carefully constructed imagery, her leaps of association and symbols all recall the language of a poet. Her seductive, confessional voice, her need to be plain about her own experiences as a mother, a writer, and an observer of the world call to mind the works of the memoirist. And her finely tuned critical mind, her need to dissect and understand both the world and the world rendered in art suggest the work of the critic and aesthetic philosopher.

In fact, Lia Purpura is all of these, employing the tools of multiple genres to examine, through a series of eighteen linked lyric essays, what it means to observe and to write. For her, choosing to look is often an ethical decision, a decision complicated by the act of interpretation, of writing it down, of knowing and, thus, bearing the responsibility for that knowledge. What does it mean to observe in an autopsy room a disquieting beauty? “[T]he jacket's wet collar. Soaked black with blood, his stiffening sleeve. And, where the bullets passed neatly through, the pattern when his shirt's uncrumpled: four or five holes like ragged stars, or a child's cut-out snowflake?”

Does observing another's suffering bring with it the responsibility of action? Does the carnival freak show inspire in us merely complicity? Is being observed as a sexualized object by an anonymous other cause for indignation? Pride? What happens when an artist transforms an everyday object into art — when Chinese lanterns become “orange, papery pods gone lacy in fall, each with a dim, silver berry burninginside?” In these essays, Lia Purpura brings a nuanced, highly intelligent, critical eye to our most casual moments of perception.

— Kevin Prufer, NBCC board member