It was extraordinarily coincidental that I began reading these two particular books this week, Lia Purpura’s On Looking and Minna Proctor’s Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father. Not wanting to formalize my reading list for these ten weeks or overthink which book I *should* read next in order to be au courant with the cultural or literary zeitgeist, I just pulled the next two books from my teetering stack that used to claim most of the kitchen table (the stack now resides on a chair hidden under that table, not just to keep me from buckling under the glare of still unread books angry I didn’t read them sooner, but also because we occasionally need the table for actual eating). I couldn’t have chosen two books that more complimented each other if I had tried.
Purpura and Proctor both write about perception, and the need to discern the language of attention in order to establish one’s existence in the world. These two books explore the complexities of life interwoven with the divinity of being human, and question the ability to perceive in a world that is changeable, uncertain, and violent. Yet both depart radically from each other in style and in the focus of this perception.
On Looking is a series of short essays that present the narrator as both the “I” of the narrative arc, and also the “eye” of the essay’s landscape. Purpura writes in deeply evocative and descriptive language that lays bare her tight focus on her subjects, nowhere more clear that in the very first essay, “Autopsy Report.” Here is everything a squeamish reader will want to skip over, yet the writing, about witnessing the autopsies of twelve men brought to the Baltimore City Morgue, is never gratuitous (and we never learn anything more about these men, their names or why they died). Purpura’s writing is mystical, poetic, almost reverential in revealing the interior of these bodies, a looking that is not as much clinical as it is deferential to the mystery–but also the banality– of the human body:
“The mitral valves sealing like the lids of ice cream cups. And heavy in the doctor’s hand, the spleen, shining, as if pulled from a river.
How easily the body opens.
How with difficulty does the mouth in awe, praise. For there are words I cannot say” (6).
Looking, to Purpura, goes beyond language. There is something that words can only approximate, and yet by the act of perceiving the world, the “I” gives meaning to objects by enumerating, by naming. Thus, the “I”/ eye “creates” the world by seeing, thereby also ratifying the very existence of the narratorial “I”: “By seeing I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare” (70). Looking is also sacramental: “If looking, though, is a practice, a form of attention paid, which is, for many, the essence of prayer, it is the sole practice I had available to me as a child” (7).
And here is the bridge to Minna Proctor’s book, Do You Hear What I Hear? Proctor’s immensely detailed and thorough work tells the story of her father who decides, at the end of his career as a music professor, and after divorcing Proctor’s mother, that his true life calling is to be a priest. He undergoes a conversion from Ukrainian Catholicism to Episcopalian, and then begins the process of “discernment,” a procedure that often stretches over many years in which a postulant to the ministry is evaluated by many different people and levels of scrutiny before he or she (as in the case of the Episcopal Church which has admitted women to the priesthood since the 1970’s) is even allowed to begin seminary study. Proctor’s father is told, early in his discernment process, that he needs to refine the nature of his calling, and he effectively “fails” in his quest. Proctor’s book is about not just her father’s spiritual journey and his difficulties with the discernment process, but also an incisively detailed history of faith in America. Proctor writes about hearing the “call,” the voice of one’s perception of God or a divine presence that compels one to become a leader of a congregation, invested with nurturing the spiritual health of the people he or she leads. This is the kind of listening that creates one’s sense of being. and mission in life. Her father has heard his call, yet is thwarted by both the bureaucracy of the church and the difficulty in articulating the essence of his experience. He cannot respond to his inner sense of mission, since he cannot express with outward signs–in language– the experience of his own faith. He must learn to give up entirely the kind of agenda-driven life he has had up until now and leap into the uncertainties of his spiritual perception:
“There is a moment (of indeterminate length) of utter chaos, of flying without a net, in between the state of being convinced of the correctness of your idea and entertaining the plausibility of another, new idea. For you must let go of one idea before embracing its alternative” (120).
Both Purpura and Proctor write about what we take in of our world: the outward, physical world of our body and the landscape it inhabits, as in On Looking, and the inward, spiritual, personal, and silent world that nevertheless clamors to be listened to in Do You Hear What I Hear? Both of these books are magnificent reads, either by themselves or in conversation with each other.
And with Wednesday’s deep dive into last month’s Poetry Magazine, I’ve reached 829 pages. But there are so many more to go. The angry books on the chair under the table keep reminding me: so many more to go.