June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Megan Sweeney
A hermit crab seeking more spacious quarters finds an empty shell, waits by the shell if it’s not the right size, and when other house-hunting crabs arrive at the scene, enters a queue of crabs arranged in descending order of size. As soon as the largest crab moves into the available shell, each remaining crab vacates its shell and climbs into the next-size-up, hoping for a good fit.
Like a hermit crab trying on shell after shell, I’ve spent the past few months reading a stack of creative nonfiction. Each time I inhabit the spaces an author creates—her ways of seeing, habits of mind, and orientation to self and others—I hope to experience a sense of home. Lately, though, I’ve begun to feel confined by familiar floor plans. I find myself longing to encounter an “I” who is neither barricaded nor all-engulfing, who leaves ample room for others, an “I” whose introspection includes looking outward, attending to difference both inside and outside of the self. When I enter spaces that house pain, I often want deeper engagement, more genuine dialogue with this resident intruder. I’m eager to spend time in capacious, aerated rooms where experience is distilled, where narratives forged in fire are carefully wrought amid cooler flames.
Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers is just this kind of place.* In Purpura’s ample spaces, I feel hermit-crab-home. There, it’s possible to mind, to stay with things and make oneself a hospitable place, to hold and be held long enough to see a slug iridesce or a hare exchange one coat for another; to appreciate small moments, the boundedness of lives, the E pluribus unum of an ant hive; to feel the full mess of syringe-assisted peace or the imported, rebuffed peace of boundary-crossing Baltimoreans, so earnest in its imposition. In Purpura’s dwellings, there’s time to still the parts of a day, to conjure a beloved’s presence by adopting her gestures; to explore being unspecialized by a tree or rearranged by all the seeing. It’s work to hold, Purpura writes, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work. Investment—not “money down” but the older form, “the act of dressing to encounter the holy.”
Home to shy and alert screech owls, Purpura’s shelters have state-of-the-art acoustics. They enable ways of listening a listener hardly understands, like listening in to the ground suffocating beneath us, attending to both the presence of ease and the presence of ruin, hearing what we cannot name (an elegy that mourns a thing it never knew), or noticing the mental conversions we perform to prevent grief from overrun[ning] the banks [we] make. Purpura’s abodes accommodate being agog, unguarded, and sincere. And they make space for reading at a range of scales: reading land as body, reading the letter the day wrote me, reading shadows as expressions distilled, and reading a place like a poem by attending to all its dimensions. Under Purpura’s roofs, metaphor is an ecosystem, a way of revealing unseen dependencies, and humans, creatures, and objects are rekinned. The ghosted, shuddery call of the loon isn’t a simple sound of crazy; it’s the grief of a desperate, mercury-poisoned, coal-poisoned bird that cannot care—for its young or about its fate. Listening in, we hear ourselves in the loon’s call.
Reading All the Fierce Tethers has rearranged me. Like species of hermit crabs that find long-term shelter in the company of another—the green-eyed hermit crab who lives with sea anemones on its back, or the Japanese hermit crab who inhabits living coral—I want to reside in the spaces that Purpura creates. I want to be altered, again and again, by her reminders of what it means to be in relation, to live fiercely tethered.
*All italics indicate language from Purpura’s text.
Megan Sweeney is Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her publications include an award-winning monograph, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010); an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012); numerous articles about reading, African American literature, and incarceration; and lyric essays published in Brevity, Entropy Magazine, and Bennington Review. Sweeney recently completed a creative nonfiction manuscript titled Mendings, and she is currently writing a book about prison garb.