Lucia Perillo , who died on 16 October, was a poet who liked jokes. That’s not unusual in itself, but she also wrote on topics that may disgust you, or ones that you may think funny poetry ordinarily has no right to address: disease, decay, physical humiliation and several kinds of disability, among them her own. In 1988 she learned that she had multiple sclerosis; she long used a wheelchair and required help with daily tasks, and this fact can look like a thread that runs through her seven collections of poetry, even though MS itself is addressed only glancingly or indirectly, as one among many ways that bodies break down. (She did write revealingly about her MS in a fine, spare collection of prose essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing, from 2007.)
What links the jokes to the illness, the whimsy to the fragility, is animal biology. Perillo was almost uniquely able to bring to mind, to put at the centre of a serious poem, the fact that we are flesh, that we, like other mammals, have brains and lymph nodes and urethras, and that any of these things can fail, gradually or suddenly, with results that range from thirst to amusement to extinction. Readers who look up the poet’s life find the MS first, but it isn’t the most important fact about her. Perillo, who held a degree in wildlife management, worked in the 1980s for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, assisting in veterinary laboratories, tracking predators in Colorado, and patrolling nature reserves in California, where (she wrote) ‘bird-watching was what I did for a living.’ She was interested in deer and birds and arthropods, and – in her darkly funny treatment – human bodies are no different. Here is her short account of an American mother’s life: ‘a soft animal cleaves from her,’ ‘we swaddle it in fluff,//yet within twenty years we send it forth/with a shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenade launcher.’ Teens on ‘Saturday night/in small-town downtown’ are ‘piled/like marsupials in the backseat’s pouch’. An earnest, dull professor ‘read a chapter from his own book:/naptime./He didn’t care when our heads tipped forward on their stalks.’ When not sleeping through lectures, the undergraduate Perillo devoted herself to shoplifting pork and beef: ‘College was supposed to straighten me/like a bent tree strangled by a wire,/but being done with sweetness I could not resist the lure of meat.’
She had a special line in bad or stinky sex: a teen defloration felt like ‘trying to cram a washrag/down a bottle neck … In the end the inside of me/was not wiped clean.’ Surely nobody else has written multiple poems about professional animal impregnators. Her first, ‘Inseminator Man’, remembers a feminist commune where the title character showed up for the cows: he ‘came and went mysteriously/like the dove that bore the sperm of God to earth’. Such portraits undercut the serious, ‘natural’ masculinity in poets like Ted Hughes and D.H. Lawrence, who may seem like soft targets now. Yet the same poems pursue more difficult truths about bodies in general: we, like our cows, are made of calcium and hormones, gums and bones, even as we are made of hope and anomie, which dissolve before our bones and teeth do. It is an insight also faced by the Dantesque dentists in another poem, whose offices are open mouths, each saying: ‘Give up hope, all ye who enter here.’
Perillo’s defiant, eclectic, comic sensibility was there from the beginning – even in her first book, Dangerous Life (1989), nearly completed before her diagnosis – but her full verbal ingenuity came later, around the time of Luck Is Luck (2005). Earlier poems can read like fast, fun, fact-filled personal essays, not far from the work of the so-called ‘ultra-talk’ poets (Albert Goldbarth, David Kirby) whose chatty, digressive work filled many magazines in the 1990s. Perillo told me at a recent reading that her favourite contemporary poet was C.K. Williams, whose famously long-lined, sometimes violent poems were as committed as she is to narrative, and to mortality, but don’t have her humour or her verbal range. In Perillo’s early poem ‘Serotonin’ the bald eagle is at once a vehicle for real sublimity and
for my friend up in Canada, just one
more emblem of America’s mawkishness & glop.
He calls them shithawks, having seen so many
galumphing bedraggled through the dump, where they slit
the mountain of shiny sacks in search
of undigested grease. And yet it’s the same bird
that made me drive into a fence post
while I gawked at the deluged field – amazed,
amazed I ever wanted not to be here.
Such phrases contain – as the eagle seems to contain – at once the wish ‘not to be here’, and the wish to stay, as well as the neurochemical basis for hope and depression, life and death.
For all its contemporary informality (‘glop’), ‘Serotonin’ belongs to an old, familiar kind of poetry, the kind that includes ‘To a Skylark’. Perillo’s work often takes up familiar verse genres (prothalamion, monody, palinode) but rarely in fixed verse forms; those it does use require not rhyme, metre or mathematical patterns but repeated words – a pantoum, a few sestinas. To read those sestinas is to remember that for all her air of improvisation, this poet doesn’t simply collect facts and words and similes; she also assembles, cuts and reshapes. Another early poem remembers childhood: ‘Saturdays … spent down in the basement/with my Thingmaker and Plastigoop.’ Poetry is her thing, her plastigoop, now.
The first terrific poem in this first Selected is ‘Foley’, a six-page verse-essay on sex, sexism, sex work, ‘unrestrained grief’, ornithology and mountain hiking. It begins:
It is Harrison Ford who just saved the world,
but when he walks down a dirt road toward the ultralarge sun,
what sound like his boots are really bricks being drudged
through a boxful of coffee beans.
Foleys make sound effects, like the sound of Ford’s boots; poets make sounds whose effects describe the world more aptly, and more amusingly, than the world can describe itself. That effort at amusement is not a distraction from the real work of literature; rather, it is what distinguishes literature in general and poetry in particular, with its elements of play, from philosophy, ethics, religion and the news, ‘because what the news brings us’ – as Perillo insists in the title poem from Inseminating the Elephant (2009) – ‘is often wheelbarrows of dung – suffering/with photographs. And so long as there is suffering,/there should be also baby elephants.’ And if we are to have more baby elephants we must have ‘zoologists … from Germany’ in ‘bicycle helmets and protective rubber suits’ to inseminate the adults.
In her last years – when she wrote her best books – Perillo had more reason than most (though no more reason than Keats, or the elderly Hardy) to think about death as something approaching, and soon. Even her titles ring with it: On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths; ‘Eschatological’. Sometimes she implied that she worked hard not to be morbid, looking at death and then looking away: watching maggots denude bones, it’s ‘best not to listen/for any decibels of little mandibles’. The poems include what Helen Vendler, in Last Looks, Last Books (2010), names ‘the pressure of death within life’, ‘the weary desire for freedom from the body’, but they also raise new hopes, novelties, icons of life that goes on. In lesser hands these attempts would lead to clichés. Instead, they gain their pathos and their trickiness from the ways in which they tell us that they are trying comically hard. Thus the bizarrerie of inseminator and elephants; thus ‘For the First Crow with West Nile Virus to Arrive in Our State’, where Perillo
can see in the denuded maple one of last year’s nests
waiting to be filled again, a ragged mass of sticks.
Soon the splintered shells will fill it
as your new geeks claim the sky – any burgling
of bloodstreams starts when something yolky breaks.
Three dozen poets could write that first sentence; just one – and, now, no one alive – could have put together that last independent clause.
The wackiness in late Perillo, the foley effects and the plastigoop and the awkward insemination, can get thick, fast and loud – delightfully so, if you’re in the right frame of mind. And when they stop, the quiet means something, like the dropouts in reggae or rock music, when we hear nothing but the repeated pattern that holds up the rest of the song. For Perillo, that pattern sounds something like these lines from On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (2012): ‘When you spend many hours alone in a room/you have more than the usual chances to disgust yourself … How difficult to be in a body,/how easy to be repelled by it.’ This poet did justice to that repulsion, and that exasperation. But she also resisted it, with all the five senses, all the plastigoop, headstalks, wing-flaps and boxes of coffee beans that she could find.