The poems in the cycle that became Lia Purpura's KING BABY (Alice James Books, 2008) erupted over a period of four months. They range from short and direct to long exchanges of multiple voices -- and they are haunted by the different, the exotic, the alien, and the mystical.
From the start the narrative evokes the eerie and unsummoned:
...I was talking with my friend
when my child interrupted.
With much effort he called me down
to fish the emptiness that would become
his brother from the river.
This mysteriously arrived "brother" is a totem of some other land, some other set of gods: a pair of gourds decorated with small dangling shells, and shaped to resemble a crying baby. Or is it a household god, crying out from its coner? A voice of the hidden? Its wide mouth and vulnerably bared skeleton demand care; its blind eyes and self-sufficient roundness, no limbs, no history, perform an opposite gesture and cut off interaction.
Purpura's name for the object, "King Baby," captures two separate demands: the requirements of an infant to be carried, fed, listened to, and those of a king or god, to receive admiration and commitment and obedience. Mother of a young child, Purpura captures both of these, as well as the otherness of the object and its arrival in her life and the life of her son.
Baby found among the tangle, dried
and set upon a shelf, the crack in your head
lit in the early light of promise,
and again at nightfall, so that your white spine
carved and smoothed,
is a filament, scepter, sword conducting us all.
Soon the poet's interactions with the object morph into prayer and paean -- not to King Baby perhaps, but to something larger and stranger than daily life. From the image of a hammer striking stars from a stone, Pupura proceeds into longing, including the longing to be of use:
Like a fork, like a candle, a glove
to glove a hand in cold, I want
to fall into particular use.
I want my heart to be an awl.
Eventually she circles to the wants and desires that might be embedded in the dark, strange object.
Are you hungry, King Baby? I haven't even asked.
There are two of us in the kitchen tonight,
and you are not one of us.
Where was the totem made? What did it mean, there? Who brought it back from what far land, what journey? Each set of questions outward boomerangs back within, to human longing and confusion.
Here are some distinctions I've been thinking about:
grief and sadness, and the rift between
the dramatically used "weeping" and more familiar "crying."
And when Purpura moves from emotion to the structure of life, she lays out assertions, often dark as the hollow within King Baby's form:
Let me confess—I don't believe
things happen for reason.
I believe we bend events around to meaning
or recline with them and mystery at once.
I think we say things happen for a reason
if we don't believe the making is important.
But it is.
Eventually a similarity between the speaker and the object emerges: the flare, the thin skin, the dark center. Purpura addresses her own shaping as she speaks to and about King Baby. Preparation for death, an inner hollowness: day after day, the relationship of observer and observed changes both.
Echoes of the mystical and mythic probing of poets Bridget Pegeen Kelly and Anne Marie Macari are here, but so is the dark wilderness of the great painters like Alfred Bierstadt ("The Domes of Yosemite") and photographers like Ansel Adams. Purpura steps well beyond the powerful questions, into the potent ways to ask them. Hunger, song, solitude, love: they're woven here into a tapestry as fiercely wonderful as King Baby itself.