Lia Purpura’s On Looking
By Kelley Evans
“You look great!” people tell me. It’s the sort of thing you tell a reluctant 13-year-old who has finally put on the tie his mother begged him to wear. That is to say, while I want to take the compliment at face value, I mistrust it. Though I have said the same thing—and really meant it—to pregnant friends, I’m hesitant to believe it for myself.
I didn’t realize (when I said it to others) that the statement calls attention to the difference in appearance as much as it affirms that distinction. I’m ambivalent about this attention, being seen in a new way. Part of me embraces the acknowledgement, even craves it. I need the affirmation for what I’m doing—growing a life, lending my body in this primal way. But the comments I receive are necessarily unequal to what I experience. They can’t measure up to the thrill of the baby lunging sideways inside me, or the mind-blowing idea of being two people at once. The chit-chat also can’t compensate for the sleepless nights (it’s 4:50 am as I write this), my hip pain, indigestion, and the sundry other trials my body endures in the service of procreation. The talk acknowledges only my curvy silhouette, an appearance.
Lia Purpura touches on this conundrum in her essay “On Praise” in her new collection On Looking. Her neighbors admire a hole a man has dug for a sewerline: “‘Nice hole,’ the others said, but I was thinking how good it must have been, by this labor, to lower yourself into the ground and to be held by the ground. How good, for a change, to stop and lean against the wall of your own work and measure with your body the achievement and the depth.” She opens up the superficial neighborhood talk to see what’s beneath, exposing the dirt ready for digging under the sidewalk. She poetically complicates the relationship between those who look and the objects of their gaze.
It’s moments like these in On Looking that make me appreciate my current conspicuous state. Because if I am seen, I also see. I examine my bulging veins and appreciate the increased blood volume that nourishes my fetus. I look for others’ enlarged bellies, and I enjoy the furtive smiles we flash one another. I see others’ bodies, the fertile potential of the girls’ hips in bikinis, sitting on the side of the pool as I do laps. In line at the store, I dig my eyes into the soft folds of a grandmother’s neck, evidence of the bent posture of baby tending now years behind her. Purpura is looking, describing the miraculous in the banal, transforming what she looks at, and so am I. In the anticipation of my baby’s arrival, looking and being looked at is all I have. On Looking reminds me that, sometimes, looking is enough.
Kelley Evans is a doctoral candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and the editor of Quarter After Eight. Her essays are forthcoming in Harpur Palate and Fourth Genre.