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On Looking: Essays

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  370 ratings  ·  44 reviews

“Purpura is the real deal, and so is every successive sentence in this collection. A cornucopiac vocabulary is married to a strict economy of expression; an offbeat curiosity is married to the courage of difficult witnessing. . . .”—Albert Goldbarth

“Purpura's prose is a system of delicate shocks—leaps and connections and syncopated revelations, all in the service of the s

Paperback, 139 pages
Published August 1st 2006 by Sarabande Books
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Average rating 4.14  · 
Rating details
 ·  370 ratings  ·  44 reviews

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Carolyn Jacobson
This book got me thinking a lot about fragments, since almost all of the essay consist of fragments. In some essays, each paragraph is set apart; in others, several paragraphs serve as subsections. Is this a cop-out? I can't tell. I use fragments a lot, too, and often it's a cop-out on my part--a way to avoid thinking through the connections between things. I know it's there somewhere, but it's easier just to leave both things hovering next to each other and let the listeners work it out themsel ...more
John Madera
Mar 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My formal review, which was published back in 2008, is lost somewhere in cyberspace (and yes, I've tried the "Wayback Machine") or is stuck on an inaccessible hard drive. In any case, I did find a bit of it: "I think of On Looking, Lia Purpura’s collection of essays about perception, being, self-apprehension, object recognition, and words, words, words, as a whirling dynamo of currents and pulses. Its startling lyricism, its dripping lushness, its frothing sensuousness, and its fascination with ...more
Andy Stallings
Sep 02, 2010 rated it liked it
The language is almost (no: is) irritating in its consciously beautiful construction. Which does not negate the fact that it is beautiful, but does diminish my pleasure.

Makes me wonder whether there is a point at which self-awareness becomes a detriment. As a narrative strategy, definitely.

Nevertheless, I don't mean to speak much harshly about this book. The essays are (mostly) woven delicately, and bring the world to sharp focus around Purpura's shifting center within observation of it.

Not li
Aug 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Purpura’s collection of essays revolves around the theme of seeing things in a new way. It’s about perception, awareness. She looks at various things. Dead bodies. Vulnerability. Deformities. Patterns. Color. Space. Objects. A fox, briefly. A small woman and others on display. Reaction to a killer on the loose. Things framed in a window, and dying. Ruins. Deposition. A rooftop view. A snake. Praise. A dead horsefly. Things you don’t want to see. And as she looks closely at these things, inviting ...more
Aug 22, 2017 rated it liked it
High points: This author is a precise wordsmith, yet her work is also lyrical, as if weaving some loosely connected work of words and concepts. These essays reveal a glimpse into a sharp, penetrating, and fearless mind.
Low points: Several essays in this collection focus on macabre details, understandable if these were experiences that the author personally dealt with, but they aren't. It is as if she has chosen to draw out and set her gaze upon the morbidity of life, going so far as to visit a s
Jamie Grefe
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
It's not enough to say that Lia Purpura's work holds influence over my own, that her essays are like perfect windows or mirrors held up to the sky. No. My words are not enough.
Simon Stegall
Nov 21, 2017 rated it did not like it
Couldn't finish this one. I have nothing against the lyric essay in particular, but Purpura's style is so overly lyrical it verges on incoherence. She uses images and splintered concepts to evoke a poetic aesthetic, but there is little control or content underneath the flowery language. If these essays were poems I think I would have been more inclined to like them, but as essays I thought they were corny and boring.

Purpura's main conceit is suggested by the title: On Looking. The notion of seei
Delia Rainey
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
wildly perceptive and poetic descriptions of bodies and leaves and windows and photographs and people and holes. i liked these essays the most when lia inserted herself more into them, as this is a book about her - and her set of eyes and the way her brain interprets our world that is merely a collage of different colors and shapes. painful imagery, looking at, looking away, unable to see or touch, the invisible body, the seen body. through a child's eyes, the confusion and obsession with this t ...more
Mar 29, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2018
I chose to move on - it’s all a bit too twee
Kat Dixon
Aug 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
a stunner

2-Minute Tuesday Reads: On Looking
Anna Gonzalez
Sep 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
INTENSE! My first taste of the lyric essay. I was confounded, but I stayed with her. Definitely a book that teaches writers to write. 💙
Dec 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
Lia Purpura’s “On Looking” is a book that defies categorization. In it, she puts forth daring ideas, suggests, questions, prods, brings things out to be examined, examines them with depth, both in language and emotion, and transfigures her observations into vivid and vibrant prose--real, earthy poetry, without a hint of stale poetic form in sight. Lia has an ability to be with the chaos of language, without striving too hard to control it, and thus, her writing travels effortlessly to rare, unpr ...more
Apr 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Today I am made a little different in my vision by this book, scrambling to prepare to discuss the second half with my students. Purpura gets too elusive and cerebral for me at times and I frown while reading, thinking she’s trying to force the emotion of a juxtaposition on us, but then… something does open… I am moved -- kind of moved to a different place and I wonder, Now how did that happen when I was so often getting frustrated by the overwrought or self-conscious sentences? Mysterious. Type ...more
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Lia Purpura's collection of lyrical essays, On Looking, is compelling in its attention to how we view the world and how we internalize that sight, that observation. In the first essay, "Autopsy Report," we are immediately swallowed into Purpura's uncanny ability to make something as desperate as viewing a group of cadavers into something surprising and beautiful. In many ways, this first essay prepares us for the rest of the collection. Most poignantly when she writes, "If looking, though, is a ...more
Apr 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone one but especially writers
Sometimes I read books and think - dog-gone-it, I was thinking the same thing; I should have written that down before she did. Sometimes I read books and think - wow, I never would have thought of that. Today, when I finished Lia Purpura's On Looking I thought - Whew! I thought of some of those things, but boy am I glad she wrote them down instead of me.

Purpura's grasp of observation is stunning - she notices the way animals are beautifully crushed by cars, how plastic grocery bags caught on a
Vincent Scarpa
Mar 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really like what the back cover has to say (surprisingly) about Purpura. She is indeed "writer-as-telescope, kaleidoscope, microscope, and mirror." It is a pleasure simply to revel in her language, which is so alive and moving. And though there are a few moments here and there that, to me, feel a bit thin in terms of meaning-making, the observations throughout which deeply moved me or troubled me far outweighed those that missed the mark. Purpura's musings on aestheticism, on freak shows, on w ...more
Tina Schumann
Apr 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: on-pause
Picked up a copy at AWP and I cannot put it down. The essay titled "Autopsy Report" alone makes it worth picking up. Purpura has a unique eye and an investigators perspective on the world. Her curiosity is infectious, but it is really her brilliant use of language, her route to expression that keeps me hooked; lyrical, experimental, at times surreal, but she always brings you back to concrete human bounds and the things of this world that make us human. She's a rare bird. I hope she's working on ...more
Oct 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
Essays about looking at things, what more would I like than that? Quiet and dreamy, unattached and perhaps even detached--the ability to look at things that are hard to look at, and still appreciate the beauty and mystery that surrounds us. Sometimes, it feels a little too poetic and somehow, too 'written' if that makes any sense, but I think it may just be that this book should be read in small doses, and not all in one bite. Not for those who would be upset reading about dead people & anim ...more
Mar 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Startling and gorgeous on so many levels. What's that word for already missing what you know will one day part? That's the way she looks at the body, her newborn child, the melting ice, the process of art-making--always seeing the past dissolving into the future and vice-versa. These lyric essays are like long prose poems, but the lyrical quality doesn't lull. To be enjoyed on a long, slow rainy day.
Nov 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The lyrical language in this book is stunning. I want to keep reading it again and again. "Coming To See" is my favorite of the essays, though that is hard to say because I love them all. "Coming To See" is written in subtitled sections and I am fascinated by this form. How do writers pull this off? And Purpura does it seamlessly...somehow...
Josephine Ensign
Jun 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Of the eighteen essays in this collection, I only liked two: "Autopsy Report" and "The Space Between." The other essays felt too contrived somehow. I've also read her more recent collection of essays, Rough Likeness, and felt they were much stronger. I do like how she is pushing the boundaries of the 'open' or new-form (or whatever people wish to call it) essay.
Jul 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Perhaps the most talented writer I have ever encountered. "On Looking" is a book of Purpura's lyric essays. All meditate on the act of observing. Never have I loved sentences so much. For example, take this sentence from the essay 'Autopsy Report': "His ribs like steppes, ice-shelves, sandstone." Just pure poetic genius.
Colleen Coyne
Jan 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, thesis
Lush and intense, gorgeously written -- questions form, the relationship between seeing and looking, between writer and observer/object of observation, between looking and language. A bit too dense to digest all in one sitting -- pace yourself.
Feb 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I didn't want it to end, so each day, I would allow myself to read only one essay. Actually, I don't think it would have been possible for me to read more than one each day. Each one is so rich, so beautiful, that it needs a lot of space around it.
Jan 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
One of the most beautifully and profoundly written collections I've encountered. The use and repetition of images and language is lovely; the voice makes you want to sit up and sigh, just so that you can tell yourself you saw the air leave your lungs.
Apr 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011-reads
Nice. Proems. The middle-distance. A lesson in lushness, and also in spareness (that's the poetry). Using sensual and accurate imagery to capture (and set loose) what we sense around us and inside us.
Nancy Nordenson
All the essays in this collection are beautiful, but one not-to-miss essay is "Glaciology."
Apr 11, 2010 rated it liked it
No Fanny Howe, sigh.
Jan 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry-poetics
Purpura's book takes time to read, but it's worth the effort. Her essays often read as extended prose poems, a quality I love and admire. Her essays delve into the nature of sight and memory.
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is a truly astounding collection of brilliant essays - thoroughly enjoyed this one.
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Lia Purpura (born February 22, 1964, Mineola, New York) is an American poet, writer and educator.

(from Wikipedia)
“Song I try to make the step-down call of the chickadee, but do it too insistently, over and over so it loses sense, the air going equally out and back, not slower in the opening, then quickening as the tight hinge retracts, but absolutely evenly, too even, the way one breathes and regulates breath for a doctor, to present the body’s equanimity. There’s a bird in a tree with a hinge in its throat, a door opening to let the sweet air pass from a high, thin place down a notch. There’s phlox out there, opening between one black and another black, hanging branch of an apple tree—the very tree that holds the bird that bends the air so parenthetically around itself, and its song around anything listening.” 1 likes
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