“Childhood’s a long training in never minding all you’re losing, everything that’s falling, crashing, being taken”—Lia Purpura’s essays unfold in rich, detail-driven vignettes, but every so often she stops me with a sentence of pure wisdom. I’ve got to take a second before moving on. All the Fierce Tethers, her new book of essays, is full of these moments. Yet when I read that line about childhood, I not only thought yes, she’s right, but also appreciated her essayistic skill in opening that place for imperfect conjecture. Her essays help readers drift toward wonder.
In the collection’s title essay, she says that when she watches people, “it’s exactly the boundedness of their lives, the precise sizing down that moves me. How absorbed and unprotected they are.” In a twist that might best be described as a bit of literary magic, Purpura’s essays make me appreciate the contours of everyday life more: our “small moments, fixed in their own tondos of light.”
Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Orion, and The Georgia Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. We spoke about presence, absence, irony, and how writing can come from a “desire for repair.”
The Millions: You’re an essayist and poet, two forms of writing marked by an associative style. In the early pages of the first essay in your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, you move seamlessly across several subjects: screaming, the idea of “never minding,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a tin of mints, a consideration of trash, and the paradoxical history of the term “bandwagon.” How do your essays and poems happen? Do you seek association and breadth in your sense of observing and perceiving the world?
Lia Purpura: Associative behavior is a form of relatedness, alignment, empathy even. Storytelling, caretaking, flashes of insight revealing wholeness, the recognition of what it feels like for a tree when the wind moves among its branches—because you’ve felt that in your body—all these are manifestations of the likenesses extant—abiding—in the world. So maybe it’s more that, rather than seeking association and breadth, I am aware of being a site at which intersections occur. I’m stunned by, (and often beset by) the ways so many different forces and beings are telling a part of the same story. Linking us up. And I see my work as a way of regarding and surfacing the interdependencies—the awe, the responsibility, the wounds incurred in recognizing the connectedness. The associative impulse confirms the deep systems holding us together even if we’re bent on ignoring or destroying those tethers.
TM: One essay in this collection, “Of Prayer,” has an early, imagined scene of a man buying a knife from Crate & Barrel. “Here, when you buy a knife, they wrap it securely in sturdy paper, which indicates they run a safe ship, no bows or gift wrap for the cutlery. They seal such things with a wide strip of tape and let it be your problem undoing it at home.” We learn that the knife was used by the man to kill his wife and daughters; his oldest daughter went to a university where you taught. In class, you ask your students to take a moment of silence: “What rattled me, though of course it shouldn’t have (this being a Catholic university), was that they had a prayer ready and knew what to say, while I had to make something up on the spot about breath and pennies and each of us being assumed into another’s day.” You write elsewhere in the book of being “given no church, no practice, no prayer (no under-the-breath rote anything to lean on).” Do you see your essays functioning as prayers? What does that mean for you as a writer—and perhaps your vision of what gives us comfort and transcendence?
LP: It’s not uncommon, I think, for many writers to consider their work a form of prayer. Writing’s practices—long, slow attentiveness (or sharp, incisive revelations), repeated sounds, words, phrases, a focused and set-aside time for work—are features of more traditional prayer practices for sure. Prayer, at least in my practice, does not require language and often refuses it, works to thwart it, asks that I become an altered perceiver and communicator. Essays, for me, take on various modes that are found in prayer: self- interrogation and arguments with self and with fate, praise, a laying out of the vulnerability of places or beings that I’ve known intimately, a desire for repair and the wits and strength to carry it out, question-asking, direction-seeking.
TM: You quote John Donne mid-essay, mid-book: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” All the Fierce Tethers feels so aware, narrated by someone who is so observant and here in the world. As a writer, and even as a person, how do you feel most present in the world? When do you feel most absent?
LP: I love that quote because it so directly asserts a radical equivalence, a rock-bottom sense of sanctity shared by all beings. I suppose I am most absented from the world when I’m forced to interact with what I call “the systems”—by that I mean not the sustaining systems found in cloud formations or animal habits or planting cycles, but the human made-systems and apparatus that I’m afraid I have very little stomach for and am abraded by in chronic ways, and can’t fall in with: everything from phone menus to computerized steps-following, the constant noise that our systems of “upkeep” require (leafblowers, compressors, etc) all the dinging bells (microwaves)—all these requires our tacit assent, our not-minding the ways we’re forced to break peace, concentration, etc. These are smaller abrasions but the assumptions undergirding them extend out to the enormous and intractable forms of rote behaviors, land and climate destruction and so on. On the other end of things—my sense of presence is confirmed when I am able to confirm others’ presences, when I can behave in relationships of reciprocity and proximity with humans and other beings without much mediation. The essays in the collection manage two impulses: they write into these unmediated often joy/awe-filled experiences, and they also delineate forms of contemporary assault that fly under the radar.
TM: Have there been any particularly formative essays in your life? Ones that unlocked the genre for you, or that you might return to, as a reader?
LP: Oh—here are only two of many: James Baldwin whose essays scour and love simultaneously, are ferocious and moral and relentlessly seeking, that hold accountable both the writer himself and the systems into which he’s been born. C.D. Wright whose poems move through prose-realms and are unabashedly essay-ish even while she falls in so fully with image and speech and is awe-filled by the smallest gestures witnessed in the course of a day, a drive, a conversation.
TM: In a related vein to the previous question—are there particular essays (or essayists) who you love to give to students?
LP: Most recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen which offers such elegant, compact, formal ways to counter speechlessness in the face of injustice and angles by which to express chronic anger. Also—Jo Ann Beard’s ”Fourth State of Matter“ is an amazing work—one that describes and mirrors cosmology at large as it creates its own local cosmology, set in motion by the stupendous and tragic events of a single day.
TM: I absolutely loved the essay “Brief Treatise Against Irony.” It made me think of your wonderful poem “Belief,” and your words about that poem’s core feeling: “the seam that fuses doubt/faith, optimism/despair (whatever other binaries one comes up with)—that seam holds for me a kind of light, and a capaciousness. A way of living that seemed to clarify. The holding of opposing forces makes me feel like a catfish, looking off in both directions at once. It also keeps curiosity alive.” You begin this essay with the line “The opposite of irony is nakedness,” setting a binary contrast between the vulnerable nature of sincerity and the posed performance of irony. What do you think is the “seam” between irony and nakedness, between performance and honesty? What is the healthy space between them?
LP: Some states of being need protection because the language around them sags, drags the nuance down, threatens their fragility. Your question is actually an enormous and complex one—it speaks to the range of modes of expression we’re offered today, the idea of aesthetic “choices”—which aren’t actually choices for many writers but rather the act of coming to speak as one needs to, personally—and the methods for this vary tremendously—from the raw/confessional/exuberant (Ross Gay for instance) to the more enigmatic/suggestive (Merwin), to modes that agilely employ both (C.D. Wright). Amplified performance mode in no way indicates a lack of authenticity (see Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—which is an astonishing full-body experience that just keeps coming page after page with relentless force). On the other hand, some forms of self-proclaimed “honesty”—can come off as psychological reportage or emotional indulgence. One way or another, authenticity intensifies the heat, the light, the stakes. In my essay “On Being of Two Minds” in Rough Likeness, I work through being unable and unwilling to land on one “way”—spare or effusive—and having to live in that seam, that ecotonal space where both Dickinson and the winding perambulations of Whitman are equally meaningful. So I work with loving both, and don’t necessarily feel the drive to reconcile impulses or vocal registers or amplifications or sentence forms—as a reader and writer.
In terms of “irony”—the essay essentially works through the distancing that irony requires to sustain itself, critiques its protective features, the ways it creates hierarchies and keeps one from feeling directly and unabashedly—in fact, shames a person for feeling. I love work—poems and prose—that allows the blows the creator has sustained to make it to the page. No buffing, cooling, quieting, or intellectualizing.