Speaking broadly, the genre we encounter in taking up Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness is creative nonfiction. The type or tenor of essay writing that she produces and performs in the collection has come to be known as lyric essay. In other words–as the series this semester at the Literary House frames it (with Purpura one of the featured guests)–poets who write essays. Or essays written poetically. Or, with Annie Dillard in mind, a kind of older sister in the family of lyric essayists, we can think of these as essays whose poetic and rhetorical interests are part and parcel of the project and the world the writing explores.
So, one question we can ask as we extend our reading of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek forty years into contemporary writing about the environment: what do we see and hear of Dillard, or of Dillard’s interests and rhetorical work, in Purpura? Is there in Purpura, to use some of her key terms, a resemblance, an equivalence, a rough likeness?
My initial answer is, yes and no. Perhaps that’s one way to think about what a rough likeness means. It is something there and not there at the same time. Something partial. That’s a word and idea that Purpura mediates upon in the essay “The Lustres.” There she borrows the phrase and idea of partiality from Whitman, having already borrowed the title for the essay from Emerson. Partiality, for this writer, means a vision that is both particular and necessarily incomplete. It suggests a representation that aims through its language, and by means of its deliberate meditations on words, and on its own words, to convey the things of the world it observes. Partiality also means the limitations of perspective, the necessity of subjectivity, of one’s position and bias in the observation.
“How can I say this–about sunlight, early morning, the path from kitchen to porch in my grandmother’s house–except here, in the company of others who have acknowledged the impossibility of saying and press on” (18).
Dillard, echoing Thoreau before her, concludes her pilgrimage, her earnest exploration, with the recognition of the unfathomable. For both of those explorers, the impossibility concerns the knowing of nature. One term for that impossibility used by Dillard, granted by 20th century physics, is uncertainty. Another, used by Thoreau, is nature: we can never get enough of nature.
For Purpura, the unfathomable seems to exists in the language she uses. In this, I think it fair to say that she is more engaged in the poetics of environmental writing and thinking. However, I would argue that there is a rhetorical strategy, if not larger rhetorical project, at work through these essays. Her concern with representing the rough likeness of her world, what she thinks and the things she encounters, speaks toward an interest in writing that mediates or refracts the real world in ways that go beyond something called metaphor. “This is not just a metaphor,” she writes at the end of another essay (28).
As we continue to read, we can think back to discussions of metonymy and the ways that it focuses attention on things by way of partial relation. We can also think back to Buell’s discussion of environmentality. Dillard, as we have seen, is more given to metaphor. This would be a point of contrast worth pursuing for the writing project.
That metonymic vision and expression of nature comes out in a later essay: “The compact forms, expressive, responsive–as architect Louis Sullivan wrote, ‘A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions” (126). And so, Purpura seeks to express the compact forms growing out of her conditions. Thus she writes about shit.
She takes her title “Poetry is a Satisfying of a Desire for Resemblance” from an essay (published in The Necessary Angel) by the poet Wallace Stevens, where he discusses resemblance as an important element of the real in poetry:
The study of the activity of resemblance is an ap- proach to the understanding of poetry. Poetry is a satisfy- ing of the desire for resemblance. As the mere satisfying of a desire, it is pleasurable. But poetry if it did nothing but satisfy a desire would not rise above the level of many lesser things. Its singularity is that in the act of satisfying the desire for resemblance it touches the sense of reality, it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it If resemblance is described as a partial simi- larity between two dissimilar things, it complements and reinforces that which the two dissimilar things have in common. It makes it brilliant. When the similarity is be- tween things of adequate dignity, the resemblance may be said to transfigure or to sublimate them. Take, for ex- ample, the resemblance between reality and any projec- tion of it in belief or in metaphor. What is it that these two have in common? Is not the glory of the idea of any future state a relation between a present and a future glory. The brilliance of earth is the brilliance of every paradise. However, not all poetry attempts such gran- diose transfiguration. Everyone can call to mind a variety of figures and see clearly how these resemblances please and why; how inevitably they heighten our sense of real- ity.
To return to some terms from earlier in our exploration, Purpura, by way of Stevens, seems to be interested in thinking and writing the experience of the sublime in nature–but as something also real: earthly brilliance. Not merely metaphor.
For further reading on the definition(s) of the lyric essay.
For further reading on Lia Purpura, see her website.
To hear Purpura read from “There are Things Awry Here,” published originally in Orion.
What do you make of Dillard’s interest in parasites and parasitism? How and why do we get this fairly scientific vision of her neighborhood wrapped up with what is clearly a more spiritual vision, marked by the various Biblical references she makes? For example, the very title of chapter 13, The Horns of the Altar, a reference to sacrificial practice of the ancient Hebrews.
Here is some etymology that might lend us a hand at least regarding parasites:
First used in English 1539, the word parasite comes from the Medieval Frenchparasite, from the Latinparasitus, the latinisation of the Greekπαράσιτος (parasitos), “one who eats at the table of another” and that from παρά (para), “beside, by” + σῖτος (sitos), “wheat”. Coined in English in 1611, the word parasitism comes from the Greek παρά (para) + σιτισμός (sitismos) “feeding, fattening”.
A reminder of the role that snakes play in Genesis (to say nothing of apples).
Wikipedia entry on the Ichneumon wasp, a particular focal point for Dillard–and as it happens, an example of parasitism that particularly troubled Darwin:
The grisliness and apparent cruelty (at least, from a human perspective) of Ichneumonidae larval cannibalism troubled philosophers, naturalists, and theologians in the 19th century, who found the practice inconsistent with the notion of a world created by a loving and benevolent God. Charles Darwin found the example of the Ichneumonidae so troubling that it contributed to his increasing doubts about the nature and existence of a Creator. In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
In case you are wondering, the wave breast/heave shoulder that Dillard gets to in the last chapter derives from the Hebrew scripture, specifically Leviticus (glossed here).
I am compelled by the line that follows her rather playful (and humorous–now look what you made me do) invocation of religion.
We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!
Dillard seems to have a different sacrifice in mind–or a different attitude to the sense of sacrifice that she identifies with nature. Different, at least, than the interpretation of the same passage that I found on a religious blog. Where the sacrificial offering reflects man’s dominion. In any case, no hint of the anger at God that Dillard shows.
What do we make of Dillard’s spirituality, her invocation (as here) of specific religious perspectives? Does her spiritualism fit with her naturalism? Are environmental perspectives and religious perspectives compatible?
I might suggest this late line, speak up for the creation, almost as the thesis and argument of the book. Finally, we get it. But it is not the creation, it seems, of any one province: not exclusively the Hebrew Bible’s God, not Christian creationism, not Romanticism’s sublime nature, not science’s perfectly economical machine. It’s the creation of the giant water bug (notice how it comes back, along with the cat) eating the world. It’s Emerson; but the emphasis is not on transcendence (remember his transparent eyeball from 1836 Nature) but the totality of vision. “All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free.” We have got to take (eat) it all, for better and for worse.
If we go back to “Fecundity,” does this vision answer the questions she raises, provide an explanation? Or leave us, in the end, with a picture but not an explanation? Is her vision, her project, then ecological (wanting to account for evolution)? ethical and moral (wanting to account for a human purpose missing in evolution)? political (speaking up for the creation)? spiritual (speaking up to the creator)? creative (speaking as a creator)? Or all of these? None of these?
I am left thinking my way back to Thoreau: trying to make, as he puts it in “Spring,” a fathomable account of unfathomable nature.