“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.”