Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

What's Written on the Body

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

What's Written on the Body.
Peter Pereira.
Copper Canyon Press. 2007. 120 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-252-2.

Peter Pereira's volume (his first if one does not count a previous chapbook) Saying the World won the Copper Canyon Press 2002 Hayden Carruth Award. His next, What's Written on the Body, has been released under the same imprint. The first volume having fared well, the poet has chosen, essentially, to continue the theme in the second.

There is one new wrinkle, it is true. Pereira is enamored of word play—anagrams, in particular—and during the four-or-so years between books has discovered the web-site Anagram Genius (AG). Here's how AG explains itself:

Anagram Genius Software: The latest version of the infamous anagram-generating software (and used by Dan Brown to generate the anagrams in The Da Vinci Code book and movie). Find out what YOUR name reveals! Download NOW (FREE).

An AG site-search reveals that Pereira has created at least 34 anagrams using the software, including: "Erectile dysfunction"->"Lucifer's indecent toy" and "Wystan Hugh Auden"->"Hush! Unwanted gay."

The first of the four sections into which What's Written on the Body is divided, is composed almost entirely of poems featuring word play: puns, anagrams, near-anagrams, computer slang, a verbal fugue, etc. Another bit of web-composition it seems Pereira has learned to appreciate, is featured in the poem "Lost in Translation":

Before devising, your chicken you do not have to count.
As for the penny which is rescued it is the penny which is obtained.
The girl and the spice has become entirely from the splendid sugar.

The quality of translation software is uniformly overstated. These three well-known sayings would seem to have been translated into a foreign language by some such software (Google?) and then back into English again.

The Friday Community Meal. Mail-call is over. The rules have been announced in English. Now in Spanish:

Hay unas regolas sencillas durante las varias programas aqui. No es permiso traer alcohol, drogas o armas a la propriedad. No es suficiente a disculparse a decir "No es abierta." o "No yo estoy utilizandola." No es permiso traerlas a la propriedad...".

When I first decided to learn Spanish in order to help the completely Anglo staff, at the Palanca Food Pantry, to communicate with the Latino half of the patrons (clientes) that spoke only limited English it was rough going. A——— had previously done her best to serve the function with a few-hundred word vocabulary which I quickly surpassed. She left in quite a huff. The secretary repeatedly let me know that her computer would do her translating for her. The results were uniformly comical but she just kept on trying new programs and lived with a few dozen words she'd picked up and speaking simple English words LOUDLY and sloooooooowly.

In the second section ("Practicing") Pereira returns to what was his strongest suit in the first volume: his experiences as a doctor. The poems remain simple, unadorned. They amount to a manual of practice, having, as they do, more detail in this volume about how he arrived at a diagnosis or what instrument was used. There is less sense of closure for doctor or patient, which, while it is likely to be disconcerting for some readers, is true to the experience.

While the general level of the poems remains high, the reader who is looking for the drama of medicine will be disappointed. The lack of any individual poem to approach the emotional charge of "Litany" or "Baby Made of Flowers" (from the first volume) is noticeable. These are generally "smaller" cases and the few that are not suggest the desensitization by which the psyche defends itself from an endless progression of human suffering. There is a little boy who has stuck something up his nose:

          ...I notice his eyes, glaring at me,
enraged and defiant. He snorts and I glimpse

the thing we are looking for—I probe,
nudge, grasp the pink, firm... pencil eraser?
And pull it out glistening with snot.

An elderly Cambodian man who turns out to have nothing, in particular, wrong with him:

The old man waves his arms and a staccato
of diphthongs and nasals fills the room.
He believes these words will lead his spirit
back to Cambodia after he dies.

A woman with a tremor in her arm and memories of Khmer Rouge cruelty:

I do not know how to ease or erase
what war has written in her memory,
but her tremor should lessen
with the right medicine. And that hope
seems to bring her a moment's peace.

A stop at the poet's blog (http://thevirtualworld.blogspot.com/) provides additional detail to flesh out the picture. Across the West Seattle Bridge, at the end of the shift, and up Route 5 for suburban companionship, home and garden...

Peter, I won't be going tonight, no tix this year. I can't wait to hear about though. So glad you finally got your star magnolia. You've been talking about it for years. xo
March 26, 2007 9:22 AM

Sunday. The pantry couldn't be nearly as effective without a 24-7 presence (probably couldn't survive for long) but it can make for a long day. Can't beat the commute, though. Thirty bleary steps and I'm at work.

There is no such thing as a normal day. Today there are two soccer games going on in the field in front. The fields are composed as much of sand as grass. The neighbors wheel pre-fab miniature goals into place wherever they can find an open spot. In the field in back they're finishing up Rafael's birthday party. He makes such a delicious fish soup that he is the cook regardless that it is his party. The hall has been rented out for a baptism party and they are just about to start. There are pink and white crepe and balloons everywhere. They are upset because they've been reminded that they must clean up the hall after the party or lose their deposit. In revenge they've forbidden the birthday partiers from using the restrooms.

B——— has arrived to cut down some more trees. Florida passed a new statute requiring property owners to remove most non-native trees. It's a big job and B——- is a big guy... and a paranoid schizophrenic. Cutting down the trees gives him a chance to use his tools and a place to spend his day where the police won't arrest him for loitering. I inform him that this is a bad day for it.

He pulls out his Health District ID card. I know what's coming. They spelled his name wrong on his card and this has led to a flare-up of his paranoia. The mistake was carried over onto his renewal paperwork and he tore it up. He has come to have the wherewithal, since he has been attending our programs, to realize that it's him, but still he can't help himself. Could I call them and get renewal paperwork with his name spelled properly? Yeah, okay. I'll do my best. I can't guarantee anything, though. I'd thought a conversation about it, during the previous week, had put an end to the matter but his mind kept chewing away at it.

In the second half (the final two sections) of What's Written on the Body, we find the poet at leisure. The "stone Buddha" in his garden "sits zazen" and he himself goes to meditation lessons. The house has become home by virtue of hammer, crowbar and shovel... by "Sweat Equity":

It's how we come to inhabit where we are:
tearing down a wall, planting a tree,
brushing another coat of paint onto plaster,
lowering a hedge to reclaim a view.

There are azalea, pear-tree, and magnolia in the yard, now, and an overgrown abandoned building down the street, where the older kids go to smoke pot and explore sex and that might set a poet to ruminating. The "October Journal" recalls:

          ...new sprigs of lobelia coming,
blades of tulip, hyacinth, and daffodil piercing the autumn soil.
The espaliered apple confused into setting fresh buds.

Add preparing meals for his significant other, and lying awake beside him in bed, at night, listening to the "long, dolorous cry of a Burlington Northern train," and one has a 21st century, liberal remake of Leave It to Beaver. Minus Wally or The Beave, though, and this just happens to be Pereira's single great disappointment in life as evidenced by its persistence as a plaintive theme throughout the two books.

The picture is as attractive, in its realm, as the 1950s sitcom. But, as poetry, it is often too comfortable with itself. This is not to say that there are not good poems. Or that any poem is simply bad. Such poems as "Ravenna at Dusk" (Ravenna being a picturesque section of Seattle near the University of Washington), in which the poet ruminates upon everything but Ravenna at dusk are sprinkled here and there throughout and are quietly successful. They are poems in which we all are likely to recognize ourselves with a bemused smile.

While Ward and June seemed to spend little time with their neighbors or friends, however, the Pereira household would not be the same without them weaving in and out of the scene. They are plants in the greater garden, patients in the greater clinic. Pereira et al (his name's not actually "Al") practice conspicuous subsumption:

I was at KF's house the other evening for poetry group, and she had three huge gorgeous garnet-colored peonies together in a vase on the kitchen table. (From the blog—Thursday, May 31, 2007.)

The poet keeps, among his memories, thematic portraits (much in the manner that Dutch Renaissance portraitists painted the suburbanites of the Republic with just enough detail to suggest an individual face, an individual personality), of friends and family who have passed away, of small gestures that have touched him in those who remain.

And, like the Dutch portraitists, he manages an occasional small classic of the genre (a painting before which a visitor, three hundred years later, at a small regional museum, might pause just a moment longer than she had before the others for the fact that it is just a little better at expressing an endearing quirk of human nature) such as "Channeling Madge" in which,

Months after his mother's funeral
odd turns of phrase
wend their ways into his mouth:
Howdy-do and back at ya.

Someone who truly loves painting is always looking for such surprising, obscure museums with their one surprising, obscure little canvas. There is something of the same experience available in poetry.

Wednesday. I tried to get back to the book reviews for Eclectica first thing this morning but it didn't work. It never does. Dan and Tony from the air conditioning company arrived at ten. I'd had to wake up the pastor, at her home, earlier, to find out what had happened to the check for the previous work they did. They're supposed to get back to me with a rough estimate for the next round of repairs.

Then C———- dropped by to ask if she could do her community service hours here. She has to do them in order to receive one or another social service benefit for which she has applied. Her son has been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, she informed me, his father for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The IRS contacted her. Apparently, both she and her son claimed her son as a dependent and now there are principal, fines and interest to be paid. She'd gone off the wagon briefly but is sober again. Did we have a Bible she could take away?

The visit was mercifully short (however much I was pleased to provide a sympathetic ear) but D———- hailed me as I approached the road with my bike. E———— was dealing drugs in back of the church, behind the big Banyan tree, he said. A lot of guys aren't coming to the feeds, he went on, because E———— says they owe him money and they don't want to meet him. E———-'s also physically a big guy. I'd already informed him that I didn't want to find him holding court by the tree anymore. He said they weren't smoking crack but it was pretty clear, even at a distance, what they were doing.

Amongst all this, I remembered that the Shakespeare DVD's were a day late to the library. I would have to go two miles out of my way (and back) to renew them. At the library F——— hailed me. Her husband had tried to stop paying the mortgage and utilities, some months ago, and she was pretty much at her wits' end. Somehow he is paying them once again. She dotes on her son, home schools him, but is also very strict, never lets him out of her sight unless he is in a structured program with adult supervision. She gets him in every free community program she can: art, chess, golf. Now violin: she is going to apply for a full scholarship for him to a top-end West Palm Beach magnet school and the violin is an essential component. She won't hear that he is anything but highly talented in most things (and he is even if he may not be quite as talented as she believes him to be) but both agree that he has a long way to go on the violin. Prayers were gratefully accepted on that count. They are once again happily going the daily round of thrift stores, community centers and the public library, living on little more than a dollar here and two there. The kid may have a chance.

The Servants of the Great I Am (a.k.a. The Sisters) are our partners for the Wednesday meal. The crowds have grown considerably larger over the last six months and the resources of our informal partnership of some ten religious organizations are more strained. Bob and Gerry were there. They gave in and started attending the feeds a few months ago. Now it's lunch at the Senior Center and supper at the church. Bob is diabetic and has seizures if he doesn't eat properly. Gerry is in a wheelchair and has a degenerative motor disease. I teach her ASL signs to help keep her mind and hands nimble. They keep their eyes peeled for items they might donate to the church. It helps them feel like they're doing their part. Afterwards I found a Latino guy waiting to see if he could get a blanket. I handed one along and told him that it was time for me to clear the property.

The meal was salmon and noodles—also a mixed vegetable dish that I chose to forego. I ate while I checked e-mail and streamed news video. I got started back at writing this review about 8:00 pm.

There is an attractive poetry in What's Written on the Body. It is a poetry the tropes of which have only been available for the last forty or so years out of all of human existence, at least if one did not possess considerable wealth. It is poetry of affordable health care, electricity, gas, milk, magnolia trees. It is poetry with two weeks available for vacation package tours to Paris, weekends for Sea World, two hours for meditation class, crossword puzzles, anagrams, poems. It is easy to share in the sense of the beauty of our daily lives that Peter Pereira brings to his poems. A mere forty years might suggest that it is an impossibly evanescent poetry if it weren't for our astonishing technological expectations and our ability to service endless amounts of public and private debt.

The poem "Serafina," near the end of the volume, begins as perhaps the finest poem of the volume. The poet and his partner spend the day watching the World Trade Center Towers burn and collapse. They are horrified (as we all were), look outside their window to be comforted by "our own city shining and intact in the distance." In the evening, they go out for dinner to a "bistro" nearby. A restaurant called "Serafina," that serves Italian and live jazz music.

This is poetry from the same source we have just described. Moreover, the strange juxtaposition of a massive, televised terrorist attack, three thousand miles away, and dinner at a favorite bistro, jazz quietly playing in the background, suggests that the poet stands at the brink of a new poetic territory waiting to be explored. For a moment he seems about to cross the threshold:

                    How oddly

soothing to watch the hostess guide us
to our favorite table, offer us menus, fill our glasses

with iced water—her movements calm and assured,
as if nothing astonishing had happened.

How the votive candle's gentle flickering
lit my partner's face, and the bread and the oil

the waiter brought seemed almost sacramental.

He reflects on the couple playing the "bluesy jazz" set. They, too, are lovers, just like poet and partner... and just like another couple:

          As they seamlessly finished
each other's lines I remembered

how that other couple stood
together on their fiery ledge—

how they turned to each other and
joined hands before stepping off.

It had been compelling television.

Thursday. It is midnight now. Soon I will walk the 30 steps back home. I'm in the middle of reading some twenty books: Proust, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, Daniel Dennet, a half-dozen volumes of poetry I've been sent by publishers hopeful of a review. At present, I sneak a few minutes of reading, here and there during the day, if I can manage it, but mostly sample five or ten pages from each of three or four titles before I go to bed. It's a phase I go through. (Or is it a phase that the pantry goes through? I can hardly tell anymore.) Perhaps tonight I'll put on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to listen to while I read.


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