“Tragedy’s easy, comedy’s hard,” says the actors’ cliché. Lucia Perillo tries to accomplish both, not only within the same books—On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon; $22) is her sixth—but within the same lines. Her poems’ gleeful conjunctions of scenes and weird words insist on the high spirits available in contemporary life, and their angular syntax makes for wild rides; at the same time, those rides, those words, those spirits, all point to the same melancholy end.
Perillo’s poems have virtues we might expect in essayists, even in stand-up comedy, from Montaigne to Louis C.K.: they start explaining themselves, like garrulous, awkward friends, and then they change the subject or stop short. “The problem of the body” is “not that it is mortal/ but that it is mortifying. When we were young they taught us/ do not touch it, but who can keep from touching it,/ from scratching off the juicy scab?” The word “juicy,” gross and appealing, is worth the wait. Another poem remembers a school assembly in memory of President Eisenhower: Perillo watched “in my girlish nerdfog.”
You can recognize Perillo’s work from just a few words; her strangest stanzas would stand out a mile away. Here she depicts herself watching a “Bad French Movie,” hoping it will improve: “can’t my hopes be phototropic/ as I sit in the front row with my head cocked back/ like a newly fractured dicotyledonous bean/ uncurling on its sprout?” Such verbal novelty—more fun than any bad movie—offsets Perillo’s periodic admissions that our fates are all the same, that “the beauty of the world is soon to perish;/ everything is burning up too fast.” A worse poet would delete such lines, or add more just like them; this poet knows how to go on unto extravagance, but also when to stop.
Perillo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988. She has written about it explicitly in earlier books, and though it’s never named here, disabilities—her own and other people’s—abound. Older women at a swimming pool “retreat into the changing stalls/ to sequester their mastectomies,/ but your walker will not fit there, no.” Many characters have one leg, or injured legs, or (like Oedipus) swollen feet. On a beach, “Flip-flops that wash up so consistently alone/ they cause disturbing dreams about one-legged tribes.” Some of these damaged bodies connote disease; others belong to soldiers and veterans, from Homer to Perillo’s father, whose last days she refashions as a haiku: “Soon I must cross/ the icy sidewalk—/ help. There goes my shoe.”
Against these limits to present-day mobility, Perillo sets her outdoorsy youth, when ”I paddled many days to reach the totem poles/ not barged off to Vancouver.” (“Barge” as transitive verb!) Perillo knows a great deal about the outdoors, having worked as a park ranger; her superb book of essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing (2007), sets thoughts on trails, birds and mammals against her illness, showing what happens “when a life marked by what are seen conventionally as tragic parameters (pain, debility, blah-blah, death) is described from within.”
Perillo’s lines seem so clunky, so crowded—delightfully crowded, like lighthearted parties—because they make room for both those sad parameters and the fun that offsets them. Of “Great-Uncle Stefan,” who served in the Habsburg Navy, she says: “There’s something about the nose’s/ bulb-and-nostril conglomeration that we share.” (She then moves on to World War I.) What bodies do, how they fail, can be funny too: “Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper: I can barely pronounce your name/ but have been thinking of you ever since your grease gun/ erupted into space.” Premature ejaculation, according to this poem, can happen to us all, even to a female astronaut “attempting/ to repair the space station’s solar wing!”
It’s tempting to say that Perillo’s poems have Billy Collins’s virtues without his vices: they do not require you to have read much other poetry beforehand, and they make good use of the gap between the timeless sublime and the commercial silliness of our own day. In the poem “Rashomon,” “Light passing through the leaves obliterates the subtitles/ when the thief overtakes the swordsman/ and forces his bride to submit. This is why/ I need a new 42-inch flat-screen TV.” “Need”? Of course not; or, of course. “O reason not the need,” says King Lear in King Lear (the source for another Kurosawa film that would look even better on Perillo’s new TV) when asked why he wants more stuff than survival requires; “Allow not nature more than nature needs,/ Man’s life’s cheap as beast’s.” Perillo’s poems, though they never feel like Lear, also dramatize the clash between the little things we often want—the things that make one day, one poem, unlike the next—and the universal limits to flesh and blood.
Perillo loves dogs, who inhabit their bodies wholly, who remain loyal (as we cannot) to their companions and their own best selves: “dogs and pie and swimming,” she muses, prevent her from viewing the world as a wheel of misery. On the Spectrum has almost as many dogs as it has feet and legs, among them a sonnet-like memorial to the editor Ben Sonnenberg, who also had MS, and who asked Perillo to “write about the dog in The Odyssey,” a commission now fulfilled. Perillo’s observation, and her brio, does justice to dogs’ loyalty and to human beings’ sadness: “The dogs of the childless sleep crosswise in bed,/ from human hip to human hip.” Those are lines quiet enough, and friendly enough, that many more populist, less weird, less anguished poets might wish they had written them. But they didn’t; Perillo did.
Earlier this year, Nation poetry editor Jordan Davis introduced five poems by the late Adrienne Rich that had appeared in our pages.