First Adventures In Beauty by Lia Purpura; Review by Guest Blogger Laurel Bergsten

See Double Press is a recently founded micro-press from Minnesota. Their devotion to both text and image sets them apart from competing presses, and every one of their publications is a work of art and exceptional literature.  

A recent publication, First Adventures in Beauty uses collage and erasure to explore the notion of beauty. Purpura navigates her way through her relationship with beauty, and praises the unappreciated “ugly” things like slugs and opossums.  A call for a change in perception of beauty stands at the forefront of the book and indeed readers are asked to experience beauty in a new way, much as they are experiencing the book itself in a new way.

Purpura transformed a geology field guide in order to present her fantastic visual narrative, and a field guide is precisely what it is, although rocks are no longer in the picture, save where she allowed. Rather the guide is to thought, and this book should be approached with caution for the thoughts that arise are all consuming.

I am, like most, obsessed with beauty. I long for smooth, unblemished skin, for a perfect and tidy waistline, for smooth and shining hair. The hours and days I have spent pouring over fashion magazines, concocting face and hair masks(the very name implies I’m hiding something), and dreaming that one day I would be worthy enough to meet my own standards for beauty—Elven. Nymph-like. The lady fairy—The dead Pre-Raphaelites would rise from their graves in order to paint my visage, a skeletal Waterhouse would fight Rossetti for the honor, and every heart would break upon my skin like glass meeting stone, and in my wake there would remain the glittering shards like a slugs crystalline slime.

Even Helen of Troy got wrinkles. Nevermind the fact that I haven’t had flawless skin since I was eight. Beauty withers, but endures. Even the most exquisite corpse eventually becomes exquisite dirt and leaves, trading smooth, strong arms and legs for maggots and jagged bone like changeling limbs.  Those things might be beautiful or unbeautiful. A bone is both horrific and yet crackles with cold purity. Perhaps not beautiful, but something only a breath away.

It’s not that I’m unbeautiful, and I think few are, but the philosophy of beauty is temperamental, on as basic a level as subject and objectivity. I find in my ponderings that either everything is beautiful, or nothing is beautiful. Any species plant or animal that endures, has stood the test of time evolutionarily speaking, and the form of such a creature is thusly, genius. Take Purpura’s slugs for example. How could such an oddity survive the ages? Squishy, and small, a slug is seemingly easy to overcome, and indeed is eaten by several other animals, yet they thrive, even prevail in nature. Evolution gifted them with survival: hermaphroditic reproduction, winter survival skills, and that phantasmagorical mucus. The bauplan of the slug must be beautiful if not magnificent. 

However this does not stop me from shuddering when I step on one, or encounter another unbeautiful creature. I recoil from maggots, and jump away from earwigs, and stare down my own reflection, even though I know by my own definition I am beautiful. Mere survival and perfection in form do not solve the mystery of beauty. 

Slugs are not at the heart of my thoughts though. Nor are opossums, or mushrooms, or earwigs. Rather I am the center of my thoughts. Driven by societal norms, and centuries of western culture, when faced with this book the only question I had was, “Am I beautiful?”  Most days when I look in the mirror I haven’t the slightest idea. Are my features angelic or ordinary? This is when the field guide comes in handy. Though it was reading the guide that left me without my comfortable dictionary definition of beauty, this is when Purpura’s ponderings can supplement mine. 

This is the type of book that must be perused and pondered. Readers must question the relationship of words with the page they are written on.  This turns every page into a landscape that must be visually and mentally explored, and though the book is a quick read there are places that slow the eye and force readers to consider the words and images on the page. With nearly all the text from the original guide having been erased there is an unavoidable theme of transformation. The book itself is beautiful. The collection of images, some classic, other contemporary are nothing new in and of themselves, but create something new upon the page. Purpura seamlessly combines opposites and contradictions. A vast canyon exists across the page from a slug the same size. Insects and marble statues complement one another throughout the book. The essay itself is written in black pen across the pages in relaxed handwriting. The composition is simple and elegant. The written and visual dialogues could operate independently, but instead communicate with each other.  

This sort of engagement slows the thoughts that threaten to overwhelm a meaningful journey of self. My question remains unanswered. I don’t know if I’m beautiful or what beauty is, but I do know that beauty is something. The book is an adventure in beauty. Not my first, and certainly not my last. 

Laurel Bergsten