Read On Looking: Essays Online

Authors: Lia Purpura

On Looking: Essays

Table of Contents
Also by Lia Purpura
Stone Sky Lifting
The Brighter the Veil
Poems of Grzegorz Musial
For Jed
Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
. . . I was also caught by absence in all its forms.
—Paul Eluard
I am grateful to the editors of the following journals in which these essays first appeared:
Agni Magazine:
“Falling Houses: mise-en-scene”; “The Pin”
“The Space Between”
Fourth Genre:
Iowa Review:
“On Aesthetics”; “Autopsy Report”; “On Not Hurting a Fly: A Memorial”; “The Smallest Woman in the World”; “On Form”
The Journal:
“On Invisibility”
Quarterly West:
“Coming to See”
Seneca Review:
“Red: An Invocation”
Sonora Review:
“On Looking Away: A Panoramic”
“Glaciology” appeared in the
2006 Pushcart Prize XXX: Best of the Small Presses.
For expert reconnaissance, thanks to Kristin Kearby, Ashley Markiewicz, Jason McCullough, Sarah Sandoski, and John Wixted.
I deeply appreciate the time for work and occasions for solitude made possible by The National Endowment for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Thurber House, The Center for Humanities at Loyola College, and my family.
To A.V. Christie, Jed Gaylin, and Maddalena Purpura, my ongoing thanks for your uncompromising honesty and artistry.
Autopsy Report
I wish I understood the beauty
in leaves falling. To whom
are we beautiful
as we go?
—David Ignatow
shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared. Asleep below deck when a freighter hit and the river rose inside their tug. Their lashes white with river silt.
I shall stand beside sharp pelvic bones, his mod hip-huggers stretched tightly between them. His ribs like steppes, ice-shelves, sandstone. His wide-open mouth, where a last breath came out. And there at his feet, the stuff of his death: a near-empty bottle of red cough syrup, yellow-labeled and bagged by police.
I shall touch, while no one is looking, the perfect cornrows, the 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.
I shall note the blue earring, a swirled, lapis ball in the old, yellowed man’s ear, his underwear yellowed, his sunken face taut. The amber and topaz half-empty fifths his landlord found and gave to police.
The twenty-year alcoholic before us, a businessman. All the prescriptions for his hypertension, bagged and unused near his black-socked, gold-toed foot. The first button open on his neat, white shirt and, I shall confirm, the requisite pen in the pocket neatly clamped in.
“Oh no,” an assistant says. The gospel station’s softly on, floaty in its mild joy; it’s 7:45 on a rainy Sunday morning and so far I’m the only visitor. Turning briefly to me, he asks, “What did you come here for?”
Then, “Oh no,” he says again, “no more eighteen-year-olds,” as he stops at the first body, surveying. Soon, the doctors gather in the hall, finish their donuts, scrub, suit up, begin to read from the police reports, the facts meditative as any rote practice, marking and measuring, preparing ritual ground:
The last person to see him alive was his girlfriend. History: bipolar. Suspected: OD, heroin.
“Something too pure is killing these kids in the county,” the doctor says. Of the boy’s house, the report states “nice,” “middle class” and “the deceased’s bedroom is cluttered and dirty.” Multiple generations at home. Bottle caps with resin in the trash. And here is a silver soup spoon, blue-black from the flame, encrusted where he cooked the stuff, its graceful stem embellished for nothing. As his body is—beautiful now, for nothing. Is olive-skinned, muscled, nicely proportioned. No, I shall say it, is stunning, as it turns to marble before us.
We walk back to the first body, unmingling stories. They divide up the bodies. They take the clothes off.
What I thought before seeing it all:
never again will I know the body as I do now.
And how, exactly, is that?
Have I thought of the body as sanctuary? A safe, closed place like the ark from which the Torah is taken and laid out on a table to be unscrolled. The two sides parted, opened like, soon I’d know, a rib cage, that a hand with a sharp-tipped pointer might lead the way over, reading toward depth.

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