King Baby, by Lia Purpura

King Baby cover
Spoof or homage? The poet herself confesses she isn’t sure. And what if her initial guesses about the thing floating in the river (bouy, plastic object, last summer’s melon) had been correct? It wouldn’t matter. The act of recognition is decisive — we relive it everytime we call someone or something by their name. But what if, Purpura wonders, the bedraggled vagrant one invites into one’s home turns out in the morning to be the king, going about in disguise to take the measure of his subjects? This folktale is key to my own understanding of the book. Hospitality always involves a balance between homage and spoof, between worship and make-believe. No matter how outlandish the guest, one has to keep a straight face.

I’ve never read a book where the cover photo was so essential to comprehension, though a few of the features mentioned in this odd cycle of hymns cannot be seen, nor of course can we hear the thing. (We are told it rattles when shook.) King or baby? Ancestor, I’m thinking, but the poet never directly mentions this possibility. She does see it as a role model of sorts: “Oh, let me be odd in my surroundings.”

Her own origins are only probed toward the end of the book: “Often I assemble myself/ back at the beginning,” and a poem later:

Where was I going
before all the trees,
breathing and fallen,
made, with the river,
the day I’m in now
and the tasks it requires…

And then three poems from the end, she asks, “Do I hasten things by saying?/ Am I that terrible child?”

Her son originally spotted the icon they came to call King Baby in the river on the coldest day of the year, and she pulled it out and carried it inside to thaw. So we do have this origin tale, retold often, plus another, more speculative one about a marketplace for tourists. Then too, over the course of the book, a long, cold spring arrives, and I’m thinking: a new year is always represented as a baby in the cartoons. Purpura quotes Nabokov:

The spiral
is a spiritualized circle.
In the spiral form, the circle,
uncoiled, unwound,
has ceased to be vicious.
It has been set free.

She quotes this in a different context, but it applies to the turning of the seasons better than anything, I think. Re-reading the poems today, I’m struck by their spatial and temporal grounding. What might have I found and brought home this winter? What made thing or found object among my collection might even now be waiting for its song, unrecognized mouth ajar?

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

7 Comments


    1. I’m pretty sure you’d like the book, Peter. You can see her reading a couple poems from it on YouTube.

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  1. After I read this book, I was constantly on the lookout for my own “King Baby” ! Her voice and imagination stayed with me for a very long time.

    Reply

    1. You too, eh? I also liked how cerebral Purpura manages to be without forgoing emotional impact and quirkiness. Kind of like a less sober Charles Wright.

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