The Northwest author, who died last year, left behind a collection of whip-smart, stylishly brilliant work.
When Lucia Perillo read her poems at a restaurant in Portland last year, her readers showed up to let her know what she meant to them. One by one, they approached her to tell her how much she meant to them and share stories of their own struggles. Perillo suffered from multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years and wrote about her condition in poems and essays that were matter-of-fact, laced with dark humor, and brave. At the Portland event, she read from a wheelchair and saved her strength to make each word count.
“Exhilarating but also heartbreaking,” said Joseph Bednarik, the co-publisher of Copper Canyon Press. “She was a genius inside a body that was not cooperating.”
Six months after the Portland reading, Perillo died at her home in Olympia. A cause of death was not announced. Perillo was 58 and left behind a husband, a wide circle of friends, and seven books of whip-smart, stylishly brilliant poetry about everything from old boyfriends to shoplifting from a luncheonette to bra fittings to the best way to inseminate an elephant. Life, in all its savage beauty.
The first Perillo poem I read was “The Ghost Shirt.” It has a time stamp — “Museum of Natural History, NYC, 5/1/92, the first day of the riots’’ — and a remarkable opening image:
The blue whale swam through blue air in the basement
while upstairs the elephants twined together tusk by tusk,
and the enormous canoe was being rowed by the Tlingit
as they have rowed for years without moving through the dusk
in the Hall of the Americas.
Perillo goes on to connect the sight of a ghost shirt, a garment the Lakota Sioux believed would guard against bullets to protesters putting their bodies in front of a commuter train to protest the Rodney King verdict. The shirt is artifact and symbol, real and ghostlike, and the poem ends with Perillo trying to explain to her father “what it meant to me to see the ghost shirt/just before Wall Street shut down and every banker/fled.”
Perillo grew up outside New York City and got a degree in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal. She came west to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was a seasonal ranger in Mount Rainier National Park. The active young woman who loved to disappear into the backcountry was also a gifted poet whose work was recognized early. One award-winning book followed another: “Dangerous Life” (1989, Norma Farber First Book Award), “The Body Mutinies” (1996, Kate Tufts Discovery Award), “Inseminating the Elephant” (2009, Pulitzer Prize finalist), “On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths” (2012, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award).
All the while, her illness closed the doors to the physical life she loved. Her response wasn’t anger or self-pity but humor and a grim fascination with the process of decay. When a doctor described a pain in her leg as “pins and needles,” she responded that it was “more like rubbing against a hot driveway impregnated with broken glass.”
“Oh right,” the doctor said. “You’re the poet.”
Perillo’s poetry is full of references to her beloved Northwest. “Monorail,” “Night Festival, Olympia,” “On the Chehalis River,” “For the Mad Cow in Tenino.” “Eulogy from the Boardwalk Behind the KFC” has another time stamp “Deschutes Parkway, 10/11/01,” and another stunning natural image: salmon, viewed from above, “Their colors/are borrowed from the heart of the water,/a camouflage blotchwork/of old bruises.” Perillo breaks character again, addresses the reader directly in her grief, explains that she’s tried to describe the salmon honestly, “their knitted frenzy below the floodgate.”
I read “The Ghost Shirt” when it was first published almost 20 years ago and it burned a small hole in me. I lost touch with her writing, though, and found my way back not through her poetry but her short fiction. “Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain” (2012) is a Northwest gem, hiding in plain sight like an agate on the shoreline. The stories are delicious dark cherries, ripe with the same twisty humor as her poetry. She describes a character this way: “Jill’s the only woman my age who has a hairstyle that requires curlers — in her sweater and curls, she could be Lassie’s mom.”
The settings and tone in Perillo’s fiction is downtrodden Northwest, and the comparisons to Raymond Carver were plentiful when “Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain” was published. A cynic and her mentally challenged sister meet the wrong guy. A lonely kid and his wayward mom drift to the northern Washington coast with her latest lover, Ray or Jay, they can’t remember. A young woman who works as a flagger on a highway crew gets picked up by a man when she waves him through with a mail truck coming the other way.
Copper Canyon Press published Perillo’s last book, “Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems,” shortly before her death. The new poems deal more directly with what was happening to her body and mind. “What I Know” ends “I seem to have become/an old woman whose television still/has an antenna whose only news is snow.”
Jeff Baker recently wrote about Beverly Cleary’s memoirs for The Seattle Times.