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Rough Likeness: this is not a metaphor

October 22, 2014

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. Check out the OED entry on this unlovely word.

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- 

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.

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