Jul/Aug 2009 Reviews & Interviews

The Meat Cage

Inseminating the Elephant
Lucia Perillo.
Copper Canyon Press. 2009. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-55659-291-1.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Nothing fits together gracefully in the world portrayed in Lucia Perillo's poetry. The way her volume Inseminating the Elephant begins one might think that her Multiple Sclerosis is at the bottom of it:

One of these days I'm going to get myself an avatar
so I can ride an archaeopteryx in cyberspace—
goodbye, the meat cage.

Who could blame her for wanting to be free of "the meat cage"? She once was an accomplished skier with the wilderness skills to confidently celebrate remote mountainsides, a forest ranger happy to be a forest ranger. Then, suddenly, one day, her body betrayed her into poetry, in time into a wheelchair.

But, if this is the case, she is in the habit of backdating her sense of the world's inconcinnate, slapped-together quality into years which she presumably should look back on with fondness and longing. After one fashion or another, she backdates it all the way to the childhood about which she has written so much.

Yes, she could simply be a revisionist—to a greater or lesser extent it is an unavoidable side-effect of memory—but then again she could be something else. She could, for all intents and purposes, still be a preternaturally observant eleven year old tomboy with a three-speed bike, could still have that eleven year old inability to tidy up the picture, to filter out that cheap, tinny sound, that putrid smell, that errant stream-of-consciousness thought that wants to come to mind. After all, how many little girls do actually grow up to be forest rangers, and, that having come to an end, poets?

Growing up, after all, is about more than learning to punch a time-clock, to have a condom ready and to guard one's speech. Far more. Mostly it's about learning to see as others see, hear as they hear, feel as they feel. It's about ordering the world as one's peer group orders it, about failing any longer to consciously see the inconvenient details that they do not see, about turning away from sights they turn away from:

...The coroner said:
Here is the fat guy whose Chihuahua
gnawed through his stomach. Click.
...Click. Here is the man who just Sawzall-ed
his neck clean through. Click. Here is the guy
who shot off his head, but wait: he's still living,
which is what happens if the brain stem's left intact.
Click. The coroner said we should aim for the base
not the top of the skull and remember to turn down
the heat. Click. There are many people in this world
on whom nobody checks in very often. Click.
The warmer the room, the quicker a body
will turn black and bloat. Click.
If you have a dog it is important to leave out
what seems like an inordinate amount of dog food.
Click, click...

Again, it is tempting to read into this. One can imagine the thoughts that years of "pain management" can bring to a person to linger over. But it is the air of defiance that makes the poem so striking—a trait that can be found throughout Perillo's poetry and that persists in spite of her condition. What is certain, in any case, is that few poets can pull this kind of thing off, can realize that it doesn't work without the Chihuahua and the Sawzall, without the clicks. By the same token, add the slightest additional effect to the passage, as written, and it goes impossibly over the top.

What is still more striking is the poem's lack of closure. Not only is life a graceless, often a brutal parody of itself, in Inseminating the Elephant, but the poems and volume are almost entirely without closure.

Perillo's first volume, Dangerous Life, won the 1989 Morse Poetry Prize and the Norma Faber First Book Award and it is not difficult to see why. The poet is growing up in most of the book. She occupies an enthralling, withered landscape of murder scenes, PCBs, inflatable sex dolls, and smokestacks and wants to believe that it has left her cynical enough to survive it intact.

She can not help but be vulnerable, though. The schoolyard that she once thought "a bigger universe than anyone could exhaust" eventually expands across the riprap-lined polluted river, the barren railroad right of ways, and "the darkness spreading inside my own underwear". That "darkness" brings pleasure and confusion, often pain:

The first time the blood came, after you left me,
I thought: well good, that's that—
at last assured you'd left no part of you behind
(I'd cut your books and photographs to ribbons).
But when the Rorschach spawning between my legs
dwindled to nothing, I mourned even that abandonment.
And every vacant window only mirrored your retreat—
the windbreaker huffing on your back as you fled down alleys
like a looter of shop windows, a piece of me
tucked up into each armpit.

The "that's that" is more pose than toughness and the fact makes an unusually sympathetic character of her. Still, she will soon be bold again, pursue lovers; she will continue intent upon living her own life, recoil from the idea of having children; she will remain fearful, obsessed with all the forms of violence that might be waiting around any given corner. And, then, in the title poem of the volume, she will make a fateful decision:

That morning as the wind was mowing
little ladies on a street below, I touched a bunsen burner
to the Girlscout sash whose badges were the measure of my worth

Cookery, Seamstress
And Baby Maker... all gone up in smoke.

But I kept the merit badge marked Dangerous Life...

Throughout the poetry of Lucia Perillo the Girl Scouts will serve as foil to her cynicism. Here, her symbolic act provides the volume an unusually effective closure. Not a final truth but a resting place.

By the time of the volume Luck is Luck (2005), Perillo is writing about a suburbanite nearing fifty:

whammo! it hits: how unexpected life is.
One minute you're a punk driving around
in Eddie Butterford's blue Dodge, hashing
out the script for whatever happens next,
something that with any luck'll be
hallucinogenic... but then somehow you end up
with a whole mortgage full of ornaments in the attic
and even a green metal stand to triangulate the trunk.
And all you remember coming in between was a whole
lot of dithering about what to play
on the tape deck next—what was all the worry?

This is the denouement of most personal rebellions, though details do vary.

In the more domesticated poems of Luck is Luck, the poet is self-deprecating. Still, it sometimes can simply be too much for her:

Something about the parade I hated—
so much gaiety on a knife edge,
the captain of the samba band dressed up like a beast.
But hey, that's just me, the truculent me.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea
of humans being happy. As the thief says,
This will go easier if everyone cooperates.

It is obvious that the cynicism that she once believed would make her tough enough to live the dangerous life has gained a greater ease of language. What isn't as obvious is that life turned out to be dangerous in ways she could not have imagined: she has MS, she is growing old. She is trapped in the meat cage.

One of the striking aspects the volume Luck is Luck is how much of it is about God. It seems unlikely that she ever believed much (if at all) in God but he's on her mind. Her mother took the children to church each week, chose a pew half-way back, where they "muttered" the hymns. Afterwards there was a favorite Coney Island coffee stop and pocket change to play in the arcade. Of course, she resents the burdens he placed on the daughters of Eve. But she had never depended upon him enough to feel wounded, to cut his books and his photos to ribbons. Even she seems to be at a loss for why he keeps showing up in her pages.

In the end, the poet of Luck is Luck chooses to celebrate in the face of growing older:

Bring on the kisses inflected of squid
and let the dirty dishes click like castanets!

And let the starch on my tongue
be a good quarter-inch thick

when you—with your stout malformed fingers—push
the night's last olive through my lips.

Her refusal to turn away from the realities of aging—realities mitigated only by the grotesquely humorous nature of our decay—again arrives at a particularly effective closure. She will party on, sag what will.

It is worth noting that the first poem of her next volume, Inseminating the Elephant, might be said to have appeared three pages before the lines just quoted. In the poem "Shrike Tree," Perillo reflects upon the kills the shrike has impaled upon "a dead hawthorn at the base of a hill."

They hang there, desiccating
by the trail where I walked, back when I could walk,
before life pinned me on its thorn.
It is ferocious, life, but it must eat,
then leaves us with the artifact.

In the context of the volume Luck is Luck the poem is shocking. Suddenly the grotesque is no longer humorous. She was stunned, even back then, into admiration before the stark aesthetic of the art of killing:

Because imagine the luck!—to be plucked from the air,
to be drenched and dried in the sun's bright voltage—
well, hard luck is luck, nonetheless.
With a chunk of sky in each eye socket.
And the pierced heart strung up like a pearl.

Be the artist creature or fate, the artifact is its final masterpiece. Now, as MS slowly takes the last of her body from her, she recalls that admiration.

In Inseminating the Elephant it is man who does the cold blooded killing, who sets up slide presentations of suicide, giving helpful hints for a successful aesthetic experience. Wildlife "managers" kill with a practiced lack of concern, their assistants struggling not to throw up so that they too can become managers in their turn. In the lab they kill with precision or merely kill the higher brain functions leaving the brainstem and twitching body alive for purposes of study. In Juarez, young men have made a fifteen year fad out of raping and killing young women.

It is a difficult book to read but more difficult still to put down, a consuetudinary of laboratory and field practice, in killing, interleaved with tales of inconcinnate, cacophonous living. There is an apprenticeship to killing, a striving toward the studied nonchalance of the master. Elsewhere, in the public library, the malodorous homeless snore beneath newspapers. In a parking lot, an old woman trundles up on her walker to watch Perillo be loaded, in her wheelchair, into a van:

oh how she is interested in the ruffling of my skirt
The ruffle makes her giddy, starts
her bald gums racing on their wordless observations
as she peers into my thighs.
How alike we are! Says this
no-sister of mine to be argued with,
just some crazy old woman
flashing the terrible crater of her smile

Even the rare celebrations of nature, such as "On the Chehalis River," are entirely anecdotal, imply nothing more than a passing moment among overwhelmingly many others that pass so grotesquely, to so little purpose. The poems in this volume only rarely offer a resting place, closure.

Several references to Baudelaire appear in Inseminating the Elephant and there is a quality to the book that recalls Les Fleurs Du Mal. The differences, though, are all to the point. Charles Baudelaire's ironic sense of beauty and the still more ironic trope by which he lays claim to eternal salvation are entirely lacking in Lucia Perillo. She not only lacks Baudelaire's vision, she lacks any vision at all, religious or secular, traditional or individual, subtle or simplistic. In its place, she brandishes her truculence, wears her sardonic sense of humor like a suit of armor. Her ability to look straight at the blundering-through and brutality of life, regardless of such insufficient protections, leaves her a still sympathetic—perhaps even a courageous—character, however much the reader who comes to this volume is well advised not to bring it in close proximity to any of his or her cherished illusions.

So then, there is only one issue left to be addressed, it would seem. This review has referred to Lucia Perillo both as having grown up and not having grown up. Which will it be?

In the poem "Transcendentalism," the decidedly untranscendent poet of Inseminating the Elephant is back for a moment upon her omnipresent bicycle—the lone symbol of grace in her life:

There was a simple answer
to my own question (how come no one loved me,
stomping on the pedals of my little bicycle):

I was insufferable.

Little by little, it seems, she went from an "insufferable" little girl to a merely "truculent" adult. Perhaps that vaguely describes a kind of accommodation, a kind of growing up... her body outdistancing her playground-defiant heart until the latter so sadly found itself locked within the meat cage.


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