Read Rough Likeness: Essays Online

Authors: Lia Purpura

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BOOK: Rough Likeness: Essays
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I hated the meekness of that color.
Let me never wear “bone”
I’d think.
I, who sit daily in front of a collection of real bones, three animals’ jaw bones with rough, flat planes and holes for cords, and sockets for eyes, all flesh picked, washed, burned, eaten away.
I just read: “What others might have called the futility of his passion made an additional delight for his imagination. . . .” (George Eliot)
Well, no.
And yes.
Two of my oldest friends just visited, each briefly, and returned home, one to England and one to Italy. I miss them now, and in their absence, know that I will never see them enough in this lifetime.
And I also feel held by the atmosphere each so recently scented. Right there in my kitchen was the gesture of hers I’d forgotten, long elegant hand at her flushed neck, a moment of restraint before launching her point. And there, still, the sharp tooth that shows when he laughs, and the quick eye that follows the curve of a pear, reddened in one spot low on its rump. So I go back and forth. Bereft/held, bereft/held: my heavy, iambic, two-chambered work.
And yes, the eidetic moments help.
Here is a favorite sentence from
Ethan Frome
, a marvel of lightness and economy: “Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia’s way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences.” By the time that first comma arrives, and then the next two which so quickly follow, the route of the whole sentence is cast. I remember my brief anxiety there—feeling the shape of the sentence forming, hoping the second part was up to the task. Of course, that part
is
up to the task—the whole sentence is clean, spare, beautifully paced. It’s a hinge in the story, too; events
turn
because of this sentence, loitering intentions ripen, recrudesce at just this syntactical moment. I love this sentence because it points out that a way in which I want to
know
—as a terrible drive with its end enfolded—will, in fact be dramatized in a much larger field in the story. It’s like a game, reading this sentence. I see the arm cocked and the point let fly. I get a little blinded by sun and step back. I agitate from foot to foot—then catch it like an ampoule of dye, or poison, or perfume tossed from a speeding sled, safely.
Then, too, there is
this
sentence from
Swann’s Way
:
She was genuinely fond of us; she would have enjoyed the long luxury of weeping for our untimely decease; coming at a moment when she felt “well” and was not in a perspiration, the news that the house was being destroyed by a fire, in which all the rest of us had already perished, a fire which, in a little while, would not leave one stone standing upon another, but from which she herself would still have plenty of time to escape without undue haste, provided that she rose at once from her bed, must often have haunted her dreams, as a prospect which combined with the two minor advantages of letting her taste the full savour of her affection for us in long years of mourning, and of causing universal stupefaction in the village when she should sally forth to conduct our obsequies, crushed but courageous, moribund but erect, the paramount and priceless boon of forcing her at the right moment, with no time to be lost, no room for weakening hesitations, to go off and spend the summer at her charming farm of Mirougrain, where there was a waterfall.
 
Waterfall!
The cool, mossy relief after the sentence’s journey. The long, bumpy roads, perilous switchbacks and travel-dust clouds—washed away instantly! I read faster and faster, breathless, then—“waterfall,” in its solidity and inexplicable arrival. Here is a sentence that withstands me, to which I submit, a sentence that couldn’t have known its own end when it started, as I cannot know its end as I begin reading. And I am wholly delighted by the jittery plunge I must take. By the mirror the sentence becomes, in which I see my own surprise.
I love a line cast cleanly out, a shape gently filling the neat spot prepared for it.
And I love a veering, careening ride, the ramble and torque and purifying shock of landing hard.
Freud tells the story of taking a summer walk in the country with a “taciturn friend,” a “young but already famous poet.” They are ambling along, it’s August 1915, the war’s on, so imagine the overall heaviness of heart in the slow summer air:
The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us, but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendor that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.
 
But Freud disputes “the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.” Then he tries to figure out how mourning works—since that
must
be what the two are experiencing, each in his own way, he believes—a mourning over impending death, life’s brevity and fragility. Mourning comes to its own “spontaneous end,” he reasons. “Mourning consume[s] itself ” he says, and leaves us freshened and ready to attach our love to new objects.
I think Freud must have seen many beautiful nests-with-eggs on that walk to come up with this thought. Is there anything more snugly held, more promising a sign of spring than a surprise cluster of eggs in a nest? I imagine they would have been robins’ eggs, blue of the beloved book of my childhood,
Little Bear’s Mother,
where first I encountered the color in any meaningful way (as backlit morning playground, then dusky sky, then shadow of the mother over the bear) and was held by it, felt some thirst commence, and drank and drank, and felt, at that stream, the never-enough, never, never, never-enough of pleasure held only briefly still (then gone, but refreshed upon reading—
Again! Please
,
read it again!
) Freud saw—must have seen—a nest, and constituted therein his response, which was a kind of rivulet of blue between his friend’s adamant darks. He must have held his own mourning in his own warm hand—that summer marking the first year of the war—until out came an orange-breasted flame from the blue.
(Often I prefer anger in the face of my own various losses. But too, I have my blue robins’ eggs, and looking at them makes me content. In fact, I collected a bowlful over the past year on the walks I took, sometimes three a day, to quell the factions, to run the warring out of my body.)
Recently I was walking to the park and, as I dropped the letter I was carrying into the mailbox, I was stilled by the notion, almost a prediction, that I would find a reindeer, a really tiny one about the size of a lemon. This is the way the image came to me: it “popped in” (maybe fell? down from some nest?). Maybe the weather, a very cool June afternoon, encouraged the weird image’s arrival. I attempted to exchange the reindeer for something more seasonal, more discernibly trinkety and likely to surface (clover, bottle cap, penny) but the reindeer was stubborn.
I suppose I might dig around a bit, psychewise—perhaps the reindeer is standing in for something delicate and hidden, meaningful in a way I cannot yet understand.
Along the way there were white tulips so robust they reached to my waist. I saw some kind of evergreen whose uppermost branch shot out like a hooked cane into clear sky. Pink azaleas were dulling to brown and looked more like colonies of coral. And the fertile place the reindeer sprang from (swampy? tundral?) offered up another image: a cleanly flensed frog. Now the two images were overlapping: the frog’s icy-blue, skinned legs and the whole and intact tiny reindeer.
Then came the smell of gingerbread, though likely I’m misidentifying some flower’s perfume, and while this whole sensation took place in summer, many wintry things kept adding up.
To what, though? To what?
I am of two minds about knowing.
What if I thought about the images this way: simply, that they exist out there, and embedded in shifting forms, the tender and violent enter me, the moment’s site for such happenings. No irritable reaching after fact and reason, as Keats would say, just Hello Reindeer. Hello Frog.
Your
absolute smallness.
Your
unexplained end.
These images are meaningful /I have no idea what these images mean. And what do I get if I push the real-but-odd pictures up against the nothing-in-hand?
Maybe a glimpse of the blue flame of an egg.
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