Linda Purdy, 1943-2022
by Jonathan Cohen
If I were asked to write a book blurb for a Collected Works by the late poet and short story
writer Linda Purdy, it would be “William Blake meets Kurt Vonnegut.” She possesses Blake’s
innocence and striking moral clarity along with a passion for art. At the same time, she has
Vonnegut’s capacity for deadpan, making moral points in the background while in the
foreground nothing seems to be happening.
Linda Purdy was one of the most prolific writers and poets in Orange County. She submitted
often, with faith; she wrote at least twice as much as she submitted. Her informal literary
executors, four or five friends, found large piles of writing that had not made it to the outside
world. They might not be immortal--- we have to leave room for Emily Dickinson and Audre Lorde
--- but they will be beloved.
Linda was born in 1943, which puts her in the “Greatest” Generation, not one much scrutinized by news organizations or sociologists except for the merits of its soldiers and officers. Linda, by contrast, was anti-war, anti-violence, throughout her life. It’s perverse how we have been taught to revere the Greatest Generation as patriotic killers, while a good number of us have learned from Linda’s counterexample.
She attended Whittier College for a degree in library science and a career as a librarian. From the beginning of her library work Linda thought herself oppressed and out of favor. She despaired, even though she had hope in some ways. Mostly, she felt alone. Also, she felt that she had failed to acquire the title “Mrs.” at the appropriate time, yet the ideas of marrying and cohabitating were absurd to her.
The depression caused by the library job worsened with time. Linda still earned enough money from the library to consult with psychiatrists on what to do about it. Some of these names should be on a list of Who Was Who in Orange County Psychiatry. One alleged expert convinced her to try electric shock therapy. This might perhaps have saved her, except that the doctor dialed in a little too much current, and it wiped her mind clean. Everything north of the autonomic nervous system was gone. The hospital got her emergency disability by making a phone call, and the State of California provided someone who could nurse and clean up. There
followed nearly a decade of remembering and learning again, a brain fog which receded here and there over time. If there has ever been an excuse to subjectively believe in resurrection and anamnesis, the doctor’s malpractice was it. I saw the same doctors, but my diagnosis was slightly different; I escaped the same fate.
When Linda became more of herself, she found that she had a neighbor in the trailer park: the Slovenian emigre, polymath, and autodidact Eugene Ipavec, a source of as much information as she could handle. Unsupervised, Eugene spent the bulk of his youth and young adulthood in the library or reading the OC Register. Now he could also talk to Linda. I can’t think of a happier way to learn. Theirs was a strong, long-lasting friendship, ending only with Linda’s death. They helped each other in areas the other lacked, they often kept each other company, and they looked out for each other.
In 2004, I met Linda – and Eugene – at the first meeting of Writing 11, Irvine Valley College’s fiction writing class, which was led by Professor Lisa Alvarez. One of the nice things about Linda was that she had no sacred cows. If she thought a story was ill thought-out, she would say so, but with a smile and a reassuring gleam in her eye. Her modesty was not an affectation, not an act; rather, it arose out of Christian charity. I was myself the focus of that gleaming eye more than once, and I never felt bad about it. There was also the IVC poetry class, Writing 13, taught by Professor Virginia Shank, who taught me more than I understood at the time. Here, Linda was very much the dominant poet. She always had good cheer, and she was excited to champion her favorite, often neglected poets, like Philip Lamantia. Times changed. In 2014, Linda worked with small, yellowed pamphlets printed by City Lights and other Beat printers in San Francisco. Last year, 2021, a thick omnibus of Lamantia was published by the University of California Press.
There are many other things to be said about Linda, including the time the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), Diocese of Los Angeles, wanted to make her a lay leader. For months, she drove north for her classes, but stopped halfway into the course. She thought being a lay leader would give her power that she was not ready to accept. I think they saw in Linda a genuine soul on fire with abilities she would not admit.
Finally, to a defining and singular poem by Linda, “The Goldfish Suicide,” the story of a faithful finned fish who is tempted by evil, leaps, and is lost. He is an anonymous fish, transferred in a plastic bag to a brilliant golden globe. Anonymous fish don’t make you cry when they die.
Perhaps the owner is thinking of a line of succession for the globe that is unknown to the fish. For the time being, the kitchen is ablaze with color, but the fish sees a creature more abject than he is: the soured chocolate milk, which is not translucent. It is murky, opaque – circumstances that many fish undergo these days. It is by no means as spiritual as the fish. But it is something different, a chance for a new life; “Even the best of us/Are restless and want more.” He makes the wrong choice, swapping the bright and colorful for the dark glass. Now
the operative question, or at least the one the author hints at: Do fish have souls? The title, “The Goldfish Suicide,” says “Yes.” Suicide is a major sin, an offence against Nature and God.
But at the same time, the fish is not human. It has appetites, it is mobile, and it can reproduce, but that is a very low bar which is exceeded by many other animals. So, it must be personified to have an emotional life that we care about. He is made as if he had a soul, as if the chocolate milk were the Tempter, as if the goldfish could calculate risk. And at the end, the owner does personify him, saying that he was a big fish in a small bowl, and that he jumped to the cup out of pride, another sin. Linda is riding on two lines at once – the soul line and the perceptible world in which animals live; when she leaves one track for the other, we are not interrupted.
Instead, we must bridge the space between the two tracks, which is left, of course, as an exercise for the reader.
Linda, I wish you were here to teach your own poems. Like all of us, I miss you.
Jonathan Cohen's short stories and creative nonfiction have been published in the Community of Writers' Omnium Gatherum Quarterly and the Santa Monica Review. He is a 2004 alumnus of the CoW. For eighteen years, he and his wife Beth have been the proofreaders of the Santa Monica Review. Jonathan is a private tutor specializing in AP U.S. History and has been a volunteer literacy tutor at Orange County's two public library systems, for which he received the Excellence in Volunteerism award from Orange County in 2015.