Rough Likeness
by Lia Purpura

Reviewed by Stephanie M. Barner


Published by Sarabande Books, 2011   |   149 pages

“Given the choice between, say, a dozen okay chocolates and one small piece of pure Belgian dark, I’ll take the smaller, perfect thing. The brief one-time delicacy. It’s always been this way with me. I’ll eat it at once, no slow rationing out, and then I’ll live with the fleet abundance and the longing. But, too, I have these perfect T-shirts, so well fitting, falling just-so – a whole drawerful I took such care in collecting – that I resist wearing them for fear of using them up and then not-having.” Rough Likeness, Lia Purpura’s most recent and unconventional collection of essays, is an intense anatomy of the Object, via the analysis of objects, each studied and unfolded with meticulous description and insight. In the evolutions of perspective and conclusion of its 18 essays, which cover buzzards and beach glass, gunmetal, shit, and luxury, Purpura’s explorations unveil for us the perfect in the small, modest natures of things.

The theme of the work may be said to be how language is “locked and loaded” by culture. Purpura’s project is to take these loaded words, to delve inside of them, slowly fracturing and fragmenting their parts, spinning them into new meanings, exploding their expectations and stereotypes. To do this she foregrounds the standard meanings and assumed definitions of everyday language via extreme attention to observed details. In Rough Likeness the reader gazes into mazes of conversational thought, reflections of our own fragmented selves.

Purpura’s writing is effortless and straightforward, luxurious though of substantial weight. There is a pace, a movement to Purpura’s work, that contains within itself a plurality of rhythms, each piece timed with its own particular cadences. We learn that Purpura is a musician, and this does not surprise. At times her words play remarkably like musical notes, with word alliteration as note repetition: “Dear stage. Dear props. Dear National Geographic-toned urban blight shots: dusk coming on and through one framing link of the sagging chain fence, a slick, backlit rat.” “On Luxury,” a piece in which Purpura describes the English horn part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, demonstrates both Purpura’s style and the influence her listening has on it:

I’m balancing on the very edge of the Beaux-Arts here… all the tender, new, foresty ferns unfurling, slow rambles in meadows, encounters with moss, swallows, silvery waterfall – everything fresh, alighting, awakening. And here I am… recalling how tense that passage when I played it myself, the exposed intervals not terribly complicated, but treacherous still.

Stop. Breathe. Settle. This one paragraph is a rush of descriptions that submerges us in a life-like dream that wraps around the mind. Luxury.

Rough Likeness is a refreshing examination of words, experiences, conversations, and utterances. In its examinations, Purpura brings the reader to that which Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”.

Stephanie Barner has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from the Crane School of Music, and a Master of Arts degree from Brandeis University where her specialty was Musicology. Her current research is in the field of music and medicine. She teaches general music in New York State.

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