Walk with Snowy Things

by Lia Purpura

To attend to speculative space is to care for the incoming stories the world gives and gives.  

That wasn’t snow.

But it should’ve been, looks to be, lacy with dirt, side of the road, gouged and firmed by the melt/freeze cycle. What was it I passed, 60-something degrees in late December -- not proper snow but a snarl of grey cotton, scoured and cinched, in the snowy habit of catching flung dirt.   

And what’s this, a block later, a snow-colored eggshell (also wrong in December), resting as fallen shells rest in the grass, gently and up — though what happens with eggs is not at all gentle, that breaking apart of a known world for another. The not-eggshell is a packing chip. In pasta terms, an orichietta, a little ear, or when I was a kid, the half-shell I loved, all that delicious foam for licking, Venus’s floating hair for braiding and I’d help her down into scallopy waves and swim with her, body to body, fully the animal I knew myself to be.   

There’s more not-snow on the east side of the neighborhood -- this handful (why so much cotton today?) spotted with blood like a sick X-rayed lung, part of a rough tableau on the grass, sifted round with packets of sugar, a burned plastic bottle and inside the bottle, a needle (addicts, too, have their weird, tidy gestures like anyone fitting the cap on a jar before tossing it out). Hard to imagine this wasn’t arranged --  just, come upon, the story so clear. Light on the shoelace tourniqette, sugar for cutting, matches for cooking. Someone’s next moment gauzed up in this spot, a sweet blameless hour, soft, with no edges hastening back, the fog-world easeful and grainy and fat -- and here’s the full mess of that peace.

Around the corner, a single not-snowflake in a sidewalk crack where it won’t unmelt, whatever it is, confetti far from its parade, or a fallen snow-planet. It’s not meaning I’m looking for in the way these things come, if indeed they come from anywhere, or were bent on arriving and being seen, or speaking to me in a language we share. All I know is, I’m the site-of. I’m where they meet. Under pretense of snow. Suggestion of snow. Under snow’s wing or a snow-scene setting up, calling its characters in, down, and here. Practice snow. Snow attempts and alerts. Where the white bits found and arranged their thinking, patterned themselves into an order, I get to be a gathering spot, like a ring of rocks in clear, shallow water where trout float over their pearly young.  

Such are the happier snow-like things. Snow-like betters. Stuff not made of waste or grief. This dandelion held in its final white phase, unblown, geodeisic, still wrong in December, but so unto itself there’s no need to translate it out of garbage and junk. Either way though, so much is given. All these versions of looking into what’s always been there and suddenly, the filling commences. There are relations, one comes as another, things are re-kinned.

A vision is nothing a person chooses – a vision comes flying, comes landing, unwalled, light laved if you make of yourself a hospitable place that won’t melt a thing, step on, step over, or proceed with the business of a day, which so often means: nothing to see here, keep going, enough with the stopping and sniffing, move on.

But if things pile up, as they do if allowed, then, here we go:

Tufts of white dog-hair combed out or shed. Husky fur. Collie fur. Dry and nest-ready. Once I found a nest made entirely of human hair. So perfectly bark-colored, soft and expandable, that air-and-light weave, imagine how easy to work with, a dream!  -- though as a nest, a total mistake: too sheer, no sticks or mud mingled in. There it was, the extravagant thought, or evidence of a mind being new to a task, technique coming clear after going so wrong, the bird-light blinking on, the way obvious now -- a bird reviewing its failed, fallen nest, head bent to the side (you’ve done this, too, revising a thought) -- something like Oh. Right. I get it… twigs. Then work some hair in – but only a little.

Here’s a piece of popcorn ducking behind a blade of grass. It looks at first like chewed gum or a molar and then more like cotton, but raw, from the field. The first time I saw the real thing, Tuscaloosa, I asked my friend to stop the truck, right there, side of the road, so I could get out and touch it. I was in my mid-forties. A a mid-forty year old person who’d never seen cotton -- not those gray photos in the Brittanica list of major state crops, not packed tight in a blue first aid box, but a form that moved into the neck and back, bent to the task, ache in the gut – and then it became a whole different drive,  my fresh cotton rough in its boll in my hand, the weight of it gone entirely strange, very dense, sort of cold. Like holding a bullet for the first time.

This is bird shit, rain-thinned on the sidewalk, a splotchy snow-shadow, gathering, as all this stuff is, for the eye training toward it. Offerings that come once the frame is constructed. Likenesses finding a home. Vision forming. Out in a field where I’m to meet it. Out in a field where I’m also the field.  I don’t know what the moment’s thinking, but it’s telling itself. Things are alive. Without me, and within. There is nothing shut up or remote, but everywhere is “clothed with what itself adorns.” I mean I’m getting rearranged by all the seeing and being seen.

Turning the corner, this little stone rabbit – corralled with stone frogs in a garden scene – is hunched in a position called sniff-the-ground-and-show-off-my-white tail-forever.  The white tail is more cotton and up comes the moment when, as a kid, the words first pulled apart – cotton and tail, and it wasn’t one single blur-of-a-word, cottontail, just some sounds that meant “rabbit.” How often I missed things so clear to everyone else. Adult versions persist: still having a hard time pronouncing waistcoat as weskit, and remembering to drop the “c” in victuals so as to align with those who know vittles, say vittles, and mean it.  Or as we said growing up, “the roast pan” – since it belonged to the roast alone, and was hauled out only a few times a year. A friend corrected me -- supposed to be “roasting pan,” but I’m sticking with the original, my language: roast pan – talisman bringing my grandmother back every December, her kitchen, the heat, the big dinner coming.

So goes my white-spotted world, neighborhood at least, all the found things that come to me. Come to be held. Hear that? “Beheld”?  -- the intensified form, the stand-back-so-as-to-see-the-light version, or angle that promises by holding a thing, I’ll be held by it, that attention swings both ways at once.  And what to do with that thought?

I think “go on for a bit” is a reasonable plan. I’m nearly home now.

Here’s a pod from a black locust tree whose inner white bed isn’t full white but cut-with-cream, fuzzed like young antlers in sun, the whole thing softening me so unexpectedly that I can’t tell which came first, the pod’s velvety sheen, or that it approached without words and went something like -- here’s how you feel about that beloved friend you hardly ever get to see.” And in this next pod, one loaded with seeds -- here’s how you feel with her around: multiplied and fed, loaved and fished! Then comes a compact pod-for-two, which might also be a dinner table, a diner table is more precise, since we like to eat bacon and eggs together. Or, it’s a skiff  -- “skiff” is old-timey, or “bark,” or “dory,” or best of all “corracle” -- since these fit exactly her sensibility and she’d get a kick out of it if I said, pointing down with my toe, “look, there’s our boat, come on, get in!” Because you can do that with some people, row so easily far from shore.

So here, this pod is how distance breaks up, loss softens, leads back, little gift embedded in litter, in leaves – it’s how a letter the day wrote me arrived. All these letters arriving. I keep being read to. So much comes in and arranges (today, whitely), comes shining, comes brimmed, in pangs and shocks. Alongside-running, on rounded, fat, wet – or steep, spired moments. So much figures forth. I must be wanting. I believe it takes a very great yearning to call down so great a giving.  

Reprinted with permission from Sarabande Books.

A “tidal wave of strange imaginings” from the manifesto feels recognizable to me and true.  This piece, Walk with Snowy Things, speculates its way through stories and places and a love for both forming up, unbidden, and trusts in the act and capability of the come-upon objects to tell stories, knot together into meaning. As I walk, I watch. As I walk, I am watched. This essay believes in both gestures, and locates itself at the center of those two reciprocal forces. Land/air/trees/things will find and acknowledge us, too. It’s a responsibility to listen -- I mean to really listen into forms and intentions and beings and events that might only be noted sidelong. Or overlooked entirely. As Italo Calvino says at the end of Invisible Cities,  in his own kind of manifesto: “…seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” Implicit in that urging is a form of care. To attend to speculative space is to care for the incoming stories the world gives and gives.  


Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently a collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin.) On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as four Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and others. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, is Writer-in-Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. Her new collection of essays, All the Fierce Tethers, will be out in March 2019, with Sarabande Books.