Jul/Aug 2016 Reviews & Interviews

I Would Not Presume

Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones
By Lucia Perillo.
Copper Canyon Press. 2016. 200 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-473-1.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! I've had great fun reviewing Lucia Perillo's two most recent volumes of poetry, Inseminating the Elephant and On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. In the former review I even provided the kind of retrospective view of her past volumes such as might seem more appropriate here in a volume of selected poems.

Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones is a selection from over 20 years of poetry volumes. Those volumes were fierce in their determination to be true to the ugly beauty and stultifying bathos of life. From the very first, Perillo was determined to live a "Dangerous Life":

That morning as the wind was mowing
little ladies on a street below, I touched a Bunsen burner
to the Girl Scout 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.

Soon after rejecting the rolls associated with domesticity she would be poisoning redwing blackbirds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service...

...while I took notes: Now the bird is squawking in distress,
my job being to watch on closed-circuit TV
and record the bird's death, were that to occur

in the chamber made from a gutted fridge
rigged up to a button in the next room
where, when I pushed, I'd hear a musical plink

over the loudspeaker as a mealworm dropped
from a crown of vials that sat on the chamber...

The memory would find its place in the volume Inseminating the Elephant. Not many poets write 'em like that. Life, however, has a penchant for such poems.

The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis she received while writing her first volume, Dangerous Life, gave the title poem an unexpected significance (and, presumably, her life). In time, the youthful defiance she and her readers so appreciate became an undaunted insight into the decay that goes with living and the aging process. It is fair to call her a cynic of the first order:

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.

Nobody is a saint in the face of their body's betrayal: nobody who writes poetry worth reading, anyway.

While her earlier volumes were good enough to earn numerous prestigious awards, including a 2000 MacArthur Fellowship, and a reviewer's marked respect, her poetry made a quantum leap with a group of poems at the end of the volume Luck Is Luck. With these poems all softening of the harshness of life is cast off. All grace is gone.

What was left was the inability to resist outing social conventions, a vocabulary informed in part by her scientific training and wielded with a wide range of effects, and her unflinching perspective on nature (human, in particular). The humor is about the contrast between our shared narratives, our euphemisms and the real world they seek to deny. The beauty is a beauty in the face of inevitable decay.

And now the selected poems section of Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones may mark another transition. The new poems use the old tools to ruminate over the subject of death, personal and collective. At first, the tools look almost unchanged.

But, generally, the gaze this time is not characteristically direct. A poem on friend's a rotator-cuff injury is actually the flow-of-consciousness pretext for a reflection on "the obituary" of Darryl Stingley, a football player who was paralyzed during a game and spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair.

Forever after, Stingley sat in the throne of his chair, uncomplaining,
probably dumbstruck: your old life cuts out and a story takes over
that's all a game played by the ball on your neck.

In fact it is easy to ask just what the poems come down to until the reader begins to see the pattern emerge. Like Stingley in slow motion, Lucia Perillo's affliction has also left her in a wheelchair. She might say of her own poetry that "a story takes over that's all a game played by the ball on your neck." Then Stingley dies and she muses.

In a recent profile piece, in Publishers' Weekly, Perillo reflects on where her illness has taken her.

But now I have caregivers come first thing in the morning, because I need to put these leg braces on, and that has disrupted my former schedule. So I'm needing to adapt to writing at other times, which is difficult, I'm finding. I'm still trying to get into the swing of it, but I don't have much expectation of myself." Perillo is still writing, though, even as the process becomes increasingly cumbersome. "I mean, it's hard enough to do anything at all at this point, so I should be thankful for whatever I get," she says.

As always, her observations are not in the least self-pitying.

At the beginning of the selected poems, the narrator of the poem "Daisies vs. Bees" is allergic to bee stings, and tempted, just now, to attract them to her with perfume.

I admit I have romantic ideas about lying down in blossoms, though
           okay, at the first tingle of my windpipe's swelling shut, I think
I'd grab the Epipen and jab the needle in my thigh.

This sort of ambivalence is not new to the characters of Perillo's poems. Neither is the deflating resolution to her narrator's daydreams.

The beauty of the little plot of nature into which she may any longer venture speaks to her in this and many other ways, it is clear. Even the railing to the stoop speaks to her.

Don't stick your head in a plastic bag
the spiders say, you think I'm being whimsical but I say
they say it in these webs besilvered with rain, two
hanging side by side from the railing.

We are to take her at her word: she is not "being whimsical." The beauty of the webs calls her back to the desire to live. Where she must be called back from can only be conjectured.

The poem "The Great Wave" looks at death from an evolutionary perspective.

Now that we've entered the wave of extinction
let's sing while we still can,...

It even ends with a strong signature move—bathos—in order to disavow any appearance of trying to dispense wisdom.

When we are gone, may some survivor
like Mr. Industrious Roach
evolve enough to hawk our likenesses
for didn't we cherish commerce and
view fortune as a wheel.

It does not appear to be part of the conscious architecture of this poem that persons depressed until they entertain thoughts of death often feel that it is the world that is about to end. Add to this the fact that we as a people have arrived at a juncture at which we may indeed manage to bring our species to an end and the poem explains itself without psychological machinery.

Another poem on extinction—"Eschatological"—takes bathos to a level that only this poet reaches in her better poems.

We must not think the worst of the world, I said
because the old man could be a grumbler, one of those
who say that mankind feeds on what is beautiful
and excretes shopping malls

(well he has never had to buy a curler).

If she is dwelling on death, these days, she is able to do so with her usual wry smile. She can still laugh at herself and at the world along with her.

The poem "Early December, Two Weeks Shy" is uncharacteristically elegiac about death and the decayed winter garden.

                               oh slide me in
to this dark trench on the backward side of autumn
and then just let me sleep

Elegy is new to the poetry of Perillo. It turns strangely cosmic as the poet reflects on celebrating the "marriage of Tom and John".

                   ...Let us wed
our intestines to cake, the dog
to the bone, spider to web,
man to man and human to human and
creature to creature, and...

As this strange passage goes on it begins to be clear that it is about altogether another wedding. In the end the poem resolves into death as the body's wedding with the cosmos.

to dust, and all the particles
to all of the waves and quark to quark
and vibrating string to vibrating string
to vibrating string till everything
hums with being crowned.

This is the one poem in which death is celebratory, almost inviting.

Over six volumes of poetry, Lucia Perillo has reached her readers through the fog of evasion that so persistently hangs over our lives. Her subject has always been her own life and its stages of rebellion and decay. As the result, we have been more vulnerable and more immediately engaged with life. We have also shared a lot of laughs. The poems of Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones compose a fond and truculent overview of those volumes we have loved in spite of her and ourselves, as well as new poems to take her narrative to the next stage. As for what lies ahead, I would not presume.


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