This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness (Sarabande 2011).
H. L. Hix: I am repeatedly drawn in these essays to the lists they contain. (As for example the lists on pages 29-30, 43, 67, 73-84 [the essay is structured as a list], 86-87, 147-48.) To what extent, or in what way, is the list a synecdoche (a microcosm? an analogy?) of the essay? In asking the question, I have in mind places at which you may already imply an answer, such as at the end of “Gray”: “And here I am, outside, giving thanks. I’m starting by noting every gray thing” (96).
Lia Purpura: A list is a savory thing. In a hearty list, objects mingle and bump up against: think winter soups, not consommé.
Think string of beads, not monomythic pearls.
Things lead to other things and clear a way. Like rocks in a river—once you start crossing, you find the next spot just. . . there, underfoot. And by hopping, the far bank is now near.
A list is a compact and functioning system. In the world of the list, simultaneity (the cloud-like) and suggestion (path-loving) cohere. A list both raises and answers questions: how do and here’s how things go together. (By all existing on a street in rain. On this day. In this town. All wet and lending their angle of shine. All are east facing. All smoky-but-doused, say, for example.)
The likenesses a list offers mean: we are linked. How inevitable we seem, sitting shoulder to shoulder. The further implication? Proximity is civic in nature. Nearness lets a thing lean over and speak. Speak up for. Intervene. Alone in a car, how easy it is to rage at another. Stripped of our carapace, skin against skin, how much more likely to accept an apology (and offer one, too.) To sidle up to. To let offense go.
A list makes a whole where parts had been, while also loving the shimmer between—like many glasses held up to the light: all those lit jewels soon to be sipped from. All the commingling luck and good wishes.
As a gesture, a list doesn’t “speak its mind” as much as it “lays its cards on the table.” A list would rather play than argue (and very much rather find its own mind, than inherit ways-of-saying.)
Milling, massing, pressing ahead, a list is a crowd worked into line. One becomes sort of helpless in the midst of a list, as I am now—both caught up in and buoyed along by.
In the end, collectors want to share their stuff, to have you come by, and visit, and admire. A line of tin soldiers. Creamers on a shelf. Mandibles in a Riker’s box. In the end, what collectors amass are stories. Stories body forth well in things. Are en route and lively. Thus assembled, objects in a list (the list, a writer’s collection) are always whispering into the ear of their neighbor. Touching their neighbor. Jostling, shadowing, careening off. Sweating on. Eavesdropping on. Waiting their turn. Doing their part. Telling a story that wouldn’t otherwise be, that would remain disassembled, floating free, unembraced, as is the fate of so many unaffiliated things.
Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays). Her awards include a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, work in Best American Essays, 2011, the AWP Award in Nonfiction and the Beatrice Hawley and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry. Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County and teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop.