Titles 1998-2018

On Looking, Lia Purpura


Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

Clearly informed by poetry, Purpura's unpredictable essays find subject matter among the beauty of ruins; art, its responses, and its responsibilities; mothers and children; the provocations of work; and private space found in unlikely forms.

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Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, and four Pushcart prizes. On Looking (essays) was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems and essays appear in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, Field and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD and is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a member of the core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. It Shouldn’t Have been Beautiful, her latest collection of poems, has recently been published by Viking/Penguin.


“Looking, Purpura writes, is a way of paying attention; it is an almost spiritual practice. . . . These pieces are not so much essays as prose poems, lyrical hymns to beauty and aesthetics. Purpura describes single objects beautifully. . . . [Readers] will be rewarded with Purpura’s deep intelligence.”
Publishers Weekly

“Purpura, a poet and a poetic essayist whose work has garnered a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Fulbright, and a Pushcart Prize, puts readers into a state of aesthetic arrest, as well as surprise, discomfort, and, meditative pleasure via her pristine, radiant, and unflinching collage-like essays. . . . With grace, candor, and restraint, Purpura muses over what catches the eye and why, the sensation of being seen, the nature of invisibility, and the act of looking away.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Purpura constantly probes the multifaceted, complex ethics of seeing. . . . Ever kinetic and never settled, [her] lyric prose is certainly her best defense of looking.”
—Anthony Domestico, The Harvard Book Review

“Purpura’s language is her scissor and her sword. . . . [She] does her looking with an amazing capacity to see the unseen, to bring word to the unspoken.”

“Purpura’s sense of the intricate rhythms of language, her carefully constructed imagery, her leaps of association and symbols all recall the language of a poet. Her seductive, confessional voice, her need to be plain about her own experiences as a mother, a writer, and an observer of the world call to mind the works of the memoirist. And her finely tuned critical mind .. . suggest[s] the work of the critic and aesthetic philospher. . . . In these essays, Lia Purpura brings a nuanced, highly intelligent, critical eye to our most casual moments of perception.”
Kevin Prufer, Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors

“These lyric essays are intricate studies in perception. Purpura weaves worlds together—physical spaces, emotional places—in ways that are constantly surprising, always questioning, asking us to look again and again.”
Orion Magazine

“Each piece is densely packed with ideas, sensations and juxtaposition of images. . . . [T]he language can intoxicate.”
—Jennie Yabroff, The San Fransisco Chronicle

“Purpura is looking, describing the miraculous in the banal, transforming what she looks at, and so am I.”
—Kelley Evans, Brevity

“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 startelling lyricism, its dripping lushness, its frothing sensuousness, and its fascination with minutiae—with the universes contained within a speck, a thing, a breath, a jot, an interval, a space, a vacuum. . . .”
—John Madera, Hitherand Thithering Waters

“The uninitiated reader might assume they have stumbled upon a work of prose poetry when reading her 2006 collection of essays, On Looking. Purpura infuses her non-fiction work with the same lyricism and aesthetics that go into her lines of verse.”
Clarksville Business & Heritage