'A word is a way to speak about something that really, in truth, no word can touch," Lia Purpura writes in her inspired, eclectic second essay collection, "Rough Likeness." In each of the book's 18 brief pieces, she strives to capture subjects that seem to defy close study: an adjective, a buzzard, bits of beach glass, a warning sign. Yet she finds something insightful to say about each of them, in large part because she's so careful with words, moving them as close as possible to those elusive truths.
Consider "On 'Gunmetal,'" one of the book's sharpest pieces. Purpura reflects on our habit of modifying the word "gray" with the word "gunmetal," and from there explores the nature of clichés in general and militaristic ones on particular. Clichés aren't just shards of lazy writing for Purpura. They're things that constrict us as human beings, and she pushes for writing -- and character -- that's more colorful and free. "I want to be more than a firearm's alloy," she writes. "Harder to come by. Stronger. Chromatic."
Purpura, who teaches writing at Loyola University in Baltimore, has published three collections of poetry, and throughout "Rough Likeness" she seeks out a middle ground between the explanatory and the poetic. "There Are Things Awry Here" is framed as a study of how time has changed the geography of Tuscaloosa, Ala., but it's not a pat lecture about paved paradise. Purpura is more interested in her urge to unearth history in the first place. "I can't figure out how to get my body to land in a land where the present's not speaking," as she elegantly puts it.
Anybody reading "Rough Likeness" for straightforward riffs on big issues is bound to be disappointed; Purpura is more interested in "the bright uselessness of joyful endeavors." In that regard, these pieces recover the original meaning of "essay" -- from the French word "essayer," "to try," to take any subject and attempt to give it fullness and life. Her tone is often mournful (few writers seem more inspired by rainstorms) and her choice in topics is sometimes off-putting; a meditation on human excrement may be too much even for readers who understand where she's coming from.
Yet Purpura isn't trying to shock; she simply wants us to reconsider what we often reflexively ignore. In "On Coming Back as a Buzzard" she wonders why we have such a strong cultural dislike for scavengers. In an ugly bird she finds a kind of beauty: "I love the wait, that I have my turn, that no wants my job so I go on being needed." Nobody writes about what Purpura does, and nobody writes like her -- what more can a writer aspire to?
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.