NEA Literature Fellowships

Lia Purpura

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(2004 - Prose)

From the essay "Autopsy Report"

"I wish I understood the beauty
in leaves falling. To whom
are we beautiful
as we go?"
-David Ignatow

But when the bodies were opened up -- how can I say this? The opening was familiar. As if I'd known before, this . . . what? Language? Like a dialect spoken only in childhood, for a short time with old-world relatives, and heard again many years later, the gist of it all was sensible. And though I couldn't reply, meanings hung on. A shapeliness of thought was apparent, all inflection and lilt and tonal suggestion.

Nothing was too intimate: not the leaves stuck to the crewman's thigh, and higher up, caught in the leg of his underwear; the captain's red long johns and soaked, muddy sock. Their big stomachs and how reliably strong they still looked. Not the diesel fuel slicking their faces, stinking the building, dizzying us, nor the pale, wrinkled soles of one's foot, water-logged. Not the hair braided by some woman's hands, her knuckles hard against his head. The quarter-sized hole in his twisted, grey sweat sock, sock he pulled on that morning, or afternoon, or whenever he rose while he lived and dressed without a thought to dressing.

Not the dime the police found and bagged. The buckshot pock-marking his face, his young face, the buccal fat still high, rounded and thick. Nothing was unfamiliar in the too-bright room. Not the men's nakedness, although I have never seen twelve men, naked, before me. Not the method by which the paths of bullets were measured: rods of different lengths pushed through each hole -- I had to stop counting there were so many -- until one came out the other side.

Not the phrase "exit wound."

And though I'd never seen a bullet hole, of course it would be shallow as the tissue underneath swelled uselessly back together. Of course blood pooled each blue-burnt circumference. Of course, I remember thinking.

The purpose the work comprised, the opening, was familiar.

It was familiar to see the body opened.

Because in giving birth, I knew the body opened beyond itself?

Because I have been opened, enough times now in surgery, once the whole length of me, and there are hundreds of stitches?

Then, when everything was lifted out -- the mass of organs held in the arms, a cornucopia of dripping fruits hoisted to the hanging scale -- there was the spine. I could look straight through the empty body, and there, as if buried in wet, red earth, there was the white length of spine. Shields of ribs were sawed out and saved to fix back into place. There were the yellow layers of fat, yellow as a cartoon sun, as sweet cream butter, laid thinly on some, in slabs on others. There were the ice-blue casings of large intestines, the small sloshing stomach, transparent, to be drained. The bladder, hidden, but pulled into view for my sake and cupped in hand like a water balloon. Cracks and snappings. The whisking and shushing of knives over skin, a sound like tearing silk. The snipping. The measuring jars filled with cubed liver. The intercostal blood vessel pulled out like a basted hem. The perforating branches of the internal thoracic artery leaving little holes behind in the muscle like a child's lace-up board. The mitral valves sealing like the lids of ice cream cups. And heavy in the doctor's hand, the spleen, shining, as if pulled from a river.

How easily the body opens.

How with difficulty does the mouth in awe, in praise. For there are words I cannot say.

Lia Purpura's collection of essays, On Looking, is forthcoming from Sarabande Press in 2006. She is the author of two collections of poems, Stone Sky Lifting (Ohio State University Press) and The Brighter the Veil (Orchises); a collection of essays, Increase (University of Georgia Press); and the translator, from Polish, of Poems of Grzegorz Musial: Berliner Tagebuch and Taste of Ash (Farleigh Dickinson University Press). Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award. Her essays and poems have appeared in Agni, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review and Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop where she was a Teaching/Writing Fellow in Poetry, she is Writer-in-Residence at Loyola College in Baltimore, MD.

Photo by Alan Kolc

Author's Statement

A number of the essays in my new book, On Looking, were written with the care and good tidings of the NEA in the background. The fellowship made possible spontaneous trips for research, the purchase of much-needed books, and best of all, a freer and easier sense of time, an unencumbered space into which these linked essays could stretch and align with one another as they saw fit. For this generative time, I am deeply grateful.