Jul/Aug 2012 Reviews & Interviews

"...I guard my inhumanity like the jackal..."

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
Lucia Perillo.
Copper Canyon Press. 2012. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-397-0.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! If the television character Gregory House had been a poet, instead of a doctor, he would have been Lucia Perillo (well, after the sex change operation anyway). The differences in their deep and often hilarious cynicisms, at the margins, is merely a matter of the scripts they must live: House free to quip and plot with all the panache that a sociopathic fictional character's writers can muster; Perillo (or her fictional doppelganger) actually having to navigate her way through a life.

In the opening poem of her present volume, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, Perillo is defiant in the face of an accusation that she is "inhuman":

So now I guard
my inhumanity like the jackal
who appears behind the army base at dusk,
come there for scraps with his head lowered
in a posture that looks like appeasement
though it is not.

Among House's many (in)famous quotes, we find a gloss on the passage: "Humanity is overrated."

In the next poem, Perillo invites us into the experience that is Multiple Sclerosis:

When you spend many hours alone in a room
you have more than the usual chances to disgust yourself—
this is the problem of the body, not that it is mortal
but that it is mortifying.

With the line break after "mortal", the next arrives like a grim punch line. Again, House provides the gloss:

Our bodies break down, sometimes when we're 90, sometimes before we're even born, but it always happens and there's never any dignity in it. I don't care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass. It's always ugly. Always. You can live with dignity, [you] can't die with it.

Like all of us, Perillo is dying, of course, but her MS has lingered out the indignities so she has not been able to ignore the fact. Now age has joined with her disease in an ugly tag-team affair.

For his part, House walks with a cane because of an infarcted leg (the result of a freak accident). The leg leaves him in constant pain for most of the television series. Perillo's physical affliction is still more debilitating. Nothing more "freakish" than to suddenly discover that one's body is rebelling against the brain's commands, because of a gene which does not generally express itself until one's late-20s, and that will continue to do so, ever more effectively, all of the rest of one's life. The body slowly exchanges motor signals for chronic pain.

But, while this may sound like an explanation for their cynicism—their sociopathic behavior—House's boss and old friend, Doctor Cuddy, informs the audience that he had much the same personality before his injury. As for Perillo, her volumes of poems make quite clear throughout that her outlook on life predated the first signs of her illness.

Nevertheless, infarctions and MS can only have their effects:

Every day
I meditate against my envy
aimed at those who drift inside the bubble of no trouble.

If cynicism has any justification, it is that it can make one disconcertingly honest. In Perillo that honesty can lead to a surprising depth of self-realization:

It is easy
to feel possessed of a soul that's better schooled
than the fluffy cloud inside of people who have never known suchlike
events by which our darlings
are unfavorably remade.

House cannot allow himself to be so vulnerable: "People don't get what they deserve. They just get what they get, and there's nothing any of us can do about it." The truth is cruel. His cynicism is his unremitting shield and strength. He is always in character.

Calling a television character "sociopathic" is altogether a different matter from applying the label to a living, breathing human being, even a poet (or poet-as-fictional-doppelganger). House's overt behavior is often willfully manipulative as a source of perverse personal pleasure, whereas Perillo lacks the subconscious ability to adopt the consensual reality of the group—of any group. House cannot empathize so he makes lack of empathy into a virtue and the freedom it gives him into power. Perillo, on the other hand, cannot internalize any group narrative, however much she can mimic (even now) the perspective that such narratives exist to assure. Among the many results, she studied poetry—almost certainly in order to amplify her own tiny, threatened personal narrative so it wouldn't be drowned out by the huge group narratives from which all normally socialized persons (ironically including the vast majority of contemporary poets) unfailingly choose. What in interpersonal relations may be described as "sociopathy" in poetry may qualify as unflinching realism, courage.

And brilliance. People who lack group narratives (or, in the case of House, "flat-out lack morals") have no social box to think outside of. It sometimes makes them offensive and always grossly outnumbered (the latter which tends to boost the effective I.Q.).

So then, Lucia Perillo offers a unique perspective. In an age when our collective mythologies begin to feel oppressive, suffocating (ironically including most contemporary poetry), she has slowly gone from an "insufferable" (her word) little prepubescent sociopath to a worrisomely heterodox (Could anything else be the case?) feminist sociopath to a physically attenuated O.G. sociopath (with a written excuse from her doctor) ...a.k.a. a breath of fresh air. It's such a relief to have a sociopath around sometimes (as long as one is at a safe distance).

It's only fair to acknowledge that there are degrees to this sort of thing. While Gregory House's métier is the emotional poniard precisely to the ego, Lucia Perillo's is bathos. If I were to go all ICD on you, I might say Perillo is to House as dissocial personality disorder is to full blown sociopathy, but I am not offering a diagnosis. I'm a book reviewer not a psychiatrist. Instead I'm offering the most precisely descriptive adjectival phrase available to describe a poetry and (the subject of pretty much all contemporary poetry) the poet (or poet-as-fictional-doppelganger) who wrote it.

Whereas House is incapable of expressing fondness, Perillo is even able to backdate her cynicism, in On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, with a genuine sense of nostalgia. It's fair to say she's mellowed (just a smidgen) in this volume. She fondly recalls her father asleep before the television test-pattern, many a night, open library books scattered around his recliner on the floor:

Books the fathers read to escape us
who were the shackles that the plodding days
latched onto them who'd started out their lives with war, so this
was perfect, courting danger in their underwear,
feeling the breast of the vixen stiffen,
slipping their hands into the thief's black glove.

House, on the other hand, verifies, through DNA testing, his lifelong suspicion that he was the spawn of an illicit affair and was not actually his father's son. And that's the best he has to say about him.

Perillo has been successfully married for a number of years, now, which might argue in favor of comparative normalcy (no insult intended, I assure her). (House married briefly in order to show a woman who had spurned him—though she knew she was the only woman he'd ever loved—that he was spurning her even more.) Her description of her wedding reception, in the poem "Autothalamium", suggests that considerable patience on her husband's part (not to mention a progressively crippling disease) may have made duration possible against all odds:

On my wedding night I drove the white boat,
its steering wheel a full yard wide. The dress
bellied out behind me like a sail
as I gripped the lacquered wood
and circuited the bay. The poem
by Akhmatova having already
been read, the calamari and cake
already eaten, I stood alone
in the wheelhouse while my friends
danced to the balalaikas outside
on the deck. I could not speak
for the groom...

She has kept to her life-long determination never to have children though she borrows a couple of "sons," earlier in the volume, for a poem.

Now, across a vacant field, in town, not far from the normal suburban house the author of Dangerous Life is endlessly bemused to find herself living in:

...the chopper descends
to the hospital roof so that somebody's heart
can be massaged back to its old habits.

House: "People don't change."

The final episode of the television series House aired a couple of weeks ago. House faked his own death in order to avoid prison time and to be with his one friend in the world (who has put up with his outrageous behavior for years). The friend has cancer and five months to live. After attending House's funeral, he finds the thitherto dead man waiting, at a discreet distance, beside two motorcycles. "Cancer is boring," House says. (As he has made clear, so many times before, he thinks that a normal life is even more boring—and every bit as much an affliction.) They ride off into the sunset.

This is where entertainingly sociopathic television characters fall On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. Aging poets with MS can't ride motorcycles.

Now it's back to all the properly socialized review copies that have had to wait their turn since Lucia Perillo's latest arrived in the mail.


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