25 October 2012

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press. Cloth, $22, 81 pages
ISBN: 978-155659-397-0
To Purchase:  On The Spectrum of Possible Deaths

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster

Lucia Perillo is a storyteller. She is a naturalist, a trained observer, a woman with delightful, sardonic wit. She is also a writer who works in precise imagery, a poet not unwilling to use unflinching candor about what ails her, ails us, all of us — about the highly vulnerable physiognomy of the human condition. 

This is her sixth book of poems and I have to think she has never been sharper. Laced through a body of forty-six poems we find the temporal body in variegated states of disrepair. As the title suggests, people and things have unexpected ways of expiring. Together we will consider some odd and unnecessary passings, often humorous, more often bizarre.

In the poem "Auntie Roach" we learn
             "One day George Washington rides around Mount Vernon
            for five hours on his horse, the next
            he's making his auspicious exodus
            on the spectrum of possible deaths."

The poem continues: "Rasputin was fed cyanide in little cakes / but did not slough his living husk. . . " Rasputin was then shot several times, his more or less dead body tossed into the Neva River, where he finally gave up the ghost to hypothermia. The poet renders the story of the mystic's death that December day, in 1916, more poetically. Perillo adds, "Shakespeare went out drinking, caught a fever, / ding!" If we can't take our own body's ultimate breakdown lightly, who will?

If I had to select one poem in this volume to suggest as representative of the whole it would probably be "After Reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead," where: "The hungry ghosts are ghosts whose throats / stretch for miles, a pinprick wide, / so they can drink and drink and are never sated." / Every grain of sand is gargantuan / and goes down thick as bile." No doubt Lucia Perillo has read the book, studied it, perhaps puzzled some over it, a book musing on perception, death, consciousness, and rebirth, written (we think) in the 8th Century, in verse, where we find that "all phenomena are naturally uncreated." How is that for Buddhist whimsy?

Diverting dear reader from several forms and fashions of death we also are given to consider Great Uncle Stefan in the Assassination Museum, as well as the courtesan Shikabu and her one thousand poems on tasteful sex — one thousand!; and fetchingly we find a young man, who may or may not be Lucia's grandfather, in 1915, sent by the Great Depression down the family stairs, "for lack of other work," to the boiler room, where he will "nurse the chromosomes of sadness / while his words turn in to coal." Social commentary in American poetry is hardly new, but Lucia Perillo handles its prickly edges deftly.

I should emphasize once more that the poet has done no mean job of research into her far ranging subjects, people, and their demises. And not all doom and destruction is human, though the chances are most destruction ties in awfully well to old homo-sapiens. No other poem is more unexpectedly fact-filled and technically accurate as "Lubricating the Void." Here we learn of a space walk in 2008 by U.S. Navy engineer, astronaut, and salvage diver Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Honest. I looked it up. She lost her tool belt and grease gun while on a repair mission, just outside the space vehicle. Ms Perillo uses this unexpected slice of history to give us a view from space, what images Captain Piper actually caught in her helmet camera: "we see the blue Earth, glowing so lit-up'dly despite the crap / that we've dumped in its oceans, a billion tons of plastic beads, / precursors to the action figures that come with our Happy Meals."

Toward the end of the book her lovely poem "Matins" brings us back home, back to family, for a young woman's love for her dead father, whose long-sleeve shirt, the sleeves unraveling, she wears until it too "falls to ruin."

These are mostly personal poems, poems all of us can relate to. Everyone has lost a dear one. And so these are largely I poems, me and my poems. Perillo does not dissemble, though she is a master at allusion. She declares; she underscores her thesis and does it brilliantly. No hiding from the truth, from the work she has been given to do in this life, whatever remains of it.

She concludes the poem, evidently referring to a drug, "Autothalamium," that opens with her wedding night and concludes with this:

            And no matter what has happened since (she insists)
            the years and the dead,
            the sadness of the bound-to-happen,
            the ecstasy of the fragile moment,
            I know one night I narrowed my gaze
            and attended to my captaining, while the sea
            gave me more serious work than either love or speech.

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