ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS
by Lia Purpura
Sarabande Books, 128 pages
reviewed by David Grandouiller
It’s hard to find communion with a living thing in winter. Anyone with a burrow crawls in, wraps their tail around their eyes. The other night, when snow had just started falling, I braved the interstate on my way to another city, to share a friend’s burrow. Some black ice spun me around, and I slid off the road, stopped in the median, my tread marks looping back through the new snow like a confused shadow. I’m fine, thanks. I didn’t turn around, kept driving, couldn’t bear missing a chance not to be alone. The car’s fine, too, just brown all over from the dirt I scooped up. I haven’t washed it yet. I like chauffeuring dirt around the city, an unanswered text message from the world of matter: I’m still here.
Spring is coming, and with it a new book by the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, All the Fierce Tethers. These essays are the kind of encounters I’d drive in bad weather for. Some are a lot like the heat of another warm body in a small space, some like skidding through snow-covered mud at seventy miles an hour.
My introduction to Purpura (many readers’ introduction, maybe) was her “Autopsy Report,” several years ago. I wondered at the musicality of Purpura’s diction, the rhythm and efficiency of her syntax, in sentences like the opening ones: “I shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared.” Her language, in that essay, serves the essayist’s talent for paying attention. Seeing, framing, re-viewing, re-framing, Purpura takes human bodies, invisible in their familiarity, and returns their strangeness, their individuality, baring them on the coroner’s operating table. “Have I thought of the body as a sanctuary?” she asks, almost scoffing at herself as she watches it dissembled. Re-encountering organic matter she thought she knew, Purpura sees “mitral valves sealing like the lids of ice cream cups. And in the doctor’s hand, the spleen, shining, as if pulled from a river.”
The narrator makes herself as naked as her subject, showing us her unbidden laughter at the bodies whose “weird gestures looked entirely staged,” her unexpected calm as the dead were emptied. She doesn’t stop at her reactions but interrogates them: “proof I held other images dear: shrouds, perhaps? Veils? A pall hanging […] Was I awaiting some sign of passage […] the solemnity of procession?” This change in her perception is what Purpura’s seeking, and finding it’s as easy as looking, which is maybe harder than it sounds. In time, the essay turns toward ars poetica, describing the type of confrontation that brings her to the page: “By seeing I called to things, and in turn, things called me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.”
Purpura’s emphasis on sight provides the title of the book in which “Autopsy Report” appears (On Looking), but it’s characteristic of all her work. All the Fierce Tethers is often concerned with point of view. In “Loss Collection,” she looks down at a sparrow’s carcass on a path. Its decomposing marks time. In a series of numbered pieces each titled, “Bloodspots,” she looks down, morbidly scanning the sidewalk after a local homicide. In “Dot,” she looks down: at herself (“I’m a dot”) and her dog (“a white dot”) pausing in an empty parking lot, held by the searchlight of a (possibly imagined) police helicopter. This vantage point affords her thrilling nimbleness of thought, and she flits from one idea to the next:
[The family cow is] a dot I hover over—in mind, because my uncle now has it. It isn’t gone; it just requires an aerial view. As the past often does. Danger does, too: skulking, milling, suspicious dots a police helicopter doubles back on. Bigger dot close to smaller? Copter flying lower to check: Big dot throttling smaller dot? Dots in train yards, busting out windows? Single dot running with…what? TV? Dot hauling sacks of dot belongings—across tracks, across fields, to dot camp under highway?
This mental agility demonstrates itself, also, in the variety of subject matter this book brings into cohesion. Purpura writes on the mass reproduction of art (and other objects), on irony, metaphor, symbol, on the government rationing of eagle body parts for use in religious ceremonies, on the intersections of race and class and city planning in the east/west divide of her Baltimore neighborhood, on death and the inscrutable moments before death and the personal and collective disbelief after, the scramble to explain a tragedy as one would plot a story, as one would stitch a quilt, the inability to do so. Always, at the failure of narrative or of meaning in the face of loss or of institutional absurdity, she returns to being, to seeing: “these are my shoes and I laced them this morning?”
Many of these essays find their subject matter in the natural world, and though it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them nature essays, the pieces are doing many different kinds of work. “Study with Crape Myrtle” is about a tree, on one hand, but it’s really about the narrator’s loss of language in the presence of a living thing whose being is so independent from language and naming. “I should’ve been able to think something—to say what a beauty or stopping short, at least give an Oh of surprise. But it would not come forth as a specimen. ‘It’ isn’t right at all—and there was the immediate problem: the tree would not be called anything.” This encounter leads her to a piece of wisdom from the existentialist philosopher Martin Buber, about how to be in the world. “Certain forms of apprehending, seeing, or contemplating […] aren’t wrong,” Purpura paraphrases, “just not necessary, in order to be in relation to a tree.” Earlier in the collection, in an essay called, “On Photographing Children in Trees,” a similar idea surfaces: “the birch and I spoke like a couple who, from different countries, used a third language between them.”
This communion of Purpura’s with the natural world reminds me of an old passage from Robert Capon’s philosophical/theological/poetic/melodic/comedic cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. He writes, “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual confrontation […] the uniqueness, the placiness, of place derives not from abstractions like location, but from confrontations like man-onion.” What Purpura’s book offers to a reader are thingly confrontations, rendered with more sincerity than irony, with more self-awareness than self-consciousness, and that’s all I want from any writer.
David Grandouiller writes essays, poetry, songs, and plays, and lives in Columbus, Ohio. He’s interested in work that complicates or collapses genre boundaries.