I wish all good essays could be held in the hand like Scream (or never minding) by Lia Purpura. I wish each good essay was printed on thick paper, given physical gravity. This essay turned chapbook teaches us to look closely, look tenderly, and to tell it with complexity intact.
The world is crowded with things, things, things. So much stuff with such short lives, “Their brevity isn’t meaningful.” But nothing in this essay feels brief. Every object —the cow’s tag in a photo, the milk bottle, the mint tin, Munch’s The Scream— is carefully considered. In writing Scream (or never minding), Purpura guides us through careful observation and in showing us what it looks like to look closely and tenderly, she shows us how to hold something in esteem, to value. And in valuing things, we learn to better value each other. This is not an instruction manual, it is a guided example in how to stop “never minding,” to start minding greatly.
Purpura calls us to attention, to “consider,” to “study,” alongside her. She shows us how quickly things can lose meaning if we don’t get close to them, give them meaning. She writes, “You have to get down on your knees to see all the briny, colloidal, fast-swimming creatures that, at a distance, look only like murk.”
And this isn’t a given. We all forget to do this, to get down our knees and focus our eyes, our attention. We are given to never minding. But we can train our eye toward it. “To own a thing in a more perfect way, go into training. Adopt the gestures of the beloved friend you rarely see, the way she holds a thought in her hands and twists it into place in air. Study how her fingers flare when describing something unjust, or a point beyond which she won’t be pushed, so you, too, can shape ideas in air and close up the distance between you.” How lovely. In observing a dear friend we are able to recall them, even from afar. What a miracle looking closely is.
Not everything is easy to look at. With close attention, the cow in the photo is a look at industrial farming. With close attention, your mint tin becomes a study in our throw away culture. “What might seem like veering around here isn’t. I’m trying to lay in how many times a day, and in how many ways a person —I—might turn away.” We are constantly tempted to turn away from the things that might make us uncomfortable. But then we miss the tenderness in the details.
When Purpura studies without looking away she sees a face in the shape of the oven knobs, a horse head in the scratch on the linoleum, the anxiety in Munch’s The Scream where the world has stripped it down to a clever mug. “To understand an object’s habits, its tricks, you have to live with it daily.” The practice of looking is daily. And it’s a practice. A coming back to.
Tell it with the complexity intact.
“Once you really see a thing (even briefly, and slight as a lash) it’s hard to unsee.” So what will we do with all of this stuff we can’t unsee, these things we held close, observed deeply?
What Purpura teaches here is to speak or write of the things we see while maintaining their complexity. It would have been easy for her to write the idyllic pastoral of the cow in the photo, but she doesn’t. She writes of its eyelashes “like [her] son’s in sleep” but also of the diet it is made to eat, the antibiotics required to combat that diet. She gives both sides of a moment the same lyric language, she makes it possible for a thing to be more than one thing at once – tender and cruel, happy and sad, wonderful and awful.
Of her childhood she writes: “What others called wild in me I knew to be a fending off. A countering. A minding greatly.” We could all learn a lot from the looking of our childhoods, in that time before we were given to so much never minding.
Let’s be wild, let’s mind greatly.
Always in words,