Lucia Perillo's books are imaginary rooms with real specimens in them, which she studies with merciless, witty attention. The specimens include herself.
After all, she trained as a scientist. Her bachelor's degree in wildlife management let her work as a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and then as a naturalist at the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Later, in her thirties, the onset of multiple sclerosis prompted her to develop a new career, in writing, where her disciplined practice of meticulous observation has served her well. Since 1989 she has published six collections of poems, and in 2000 she won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." She brought a keen eye to writing the poems that went into her most recent collection, Inseminating the Elephant, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
In Inseminating the Elephant Perillo attends as closely to the 1946 tsunami that hit Hawaii as to the January "Bra Event" at Macy's. Her observations range from her service dog, trained by prison inmates, to the mad cow discovered in Tenino, Washington. She'll zero in on a T-shirt left hanging on a parking meter by an apparent meth addict, and then on the white rat she vivisected in a biology lab long ago, a memory that mysteriously clings.
So one of her books can sometimes resemble a cabinet of curiosities without the cabinet. That is, because the poems are mostly in free verse, only in a few instances do tight forms — stanzas of metered lines or rhymes — safely contain, like cabinets with doors and drawers, phenomena that might be disturbing.
Perillo's most chilling observations are often warmed by fellow-feeling. When cutting into the white lab rat she realized that "the spiderweb stuff holding us here is thin," making it "difficult to account for all the people walking around not dead." In this passage the prosy, conversational lines so characteristic of Perillo’s art evoke how casually some epiphanies arrive — not marching into the mind with the sound of trumpets, but skittering in, with the noise of a small, sharp instrument accidentally dropped.
In other poems Perillo's long lines of free-verse music play fluidly against clenching rhythms, as if enacting the effort it takes to steel oneself against the knowledge of suffering. In one poem the beating of a lab turtle’s heart:
Makes me think of that submarine buried under
the sailors banging on the pipes
as if the water had ears.
Humor often leavens Perillo's meditations. In the New York Times the reviewer David Kirby called her “the funniest poet writing today, which is saying a lot, since she's also the poet most concerned with the treachery practiced on us daily by our best friends and worst enemies, our bodies.” About the Bra Event at Macy’s, Perillo writes:
Word of it comes whispered by a slippery thin section
of the paper, where the models pantomime unruffled tete-a-tetes,
despite the absence of their blouses.
And the poem "Number One" begins:
Animal attack is Number One in the list called
"Ways in Which I Do Not Want to Die" —
wait, Ben says knock it off with the death-talk;
you’ve already talked death to death.
Perillo's work can't really be said to be "about" pain. But pain is in the poems, almost impersonally, the way it's in the bedchamber of Louisa's dying mother in Dickens's Hard Times: "'I think there's a pain somewhere in the room,' said Mrs. Gradgrind, 'but I couldn't positively say that I have got it.'"
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