Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 79 pages. $22.
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Lucia Perillo’s most recent collection of poems, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, builds on the eclectic assortment of characters and observations from 2009’s Inseminating the Elephant. The personas here originate in history, pop culture, and personal experience; the book maintains Perillo’s characteristic humor and wit. Despite these similarities, Spectrum departs from its predecessor in its treatment of violence and mortality. Where Inseminating the Elephant delighted in the profane, presenting grotesque revels as a grim escape from suffering, this new collection depicts the hazards of daily life as reminders that death is never far away. By drawing attention to domestic violence in particular, Perillo focuses on spaces conventionally reserved for comfort and familiarity. This accumulation of quotidian dangers often culminates in Perillo’s urging the reader—or herself—to mind the present, to seize the day. But she does not rest on this exhortation. She charges readers with blame for the violence that surrounds us, and, by implication, demands a response.
The collection begins with a poem titled “The Second Slaughter,” which details Hector’s notorious death at the hands of Achilles. Perillo writes, “Achilles slays the man who slew his friend, pierces the corpse / behind the heels and drags it / behind the chariot.” Though they depict the act’s brutality, these first lines merely retell, in Perillo’s caustic style, the story of Hector’s death. However, Perillo contemporizes the tale, comparing his body to “cans that trail / a bride and groom.” The poem closes with a shift from one Asian land war to another, as Perillo writes, “When the oil wells of Persia burned I did not weep / until I heard about the birds.” She continues, “I imagined [them] to be scarlet, with crests like egrets / and tails like peacocks, covered in tar.” The image conveys, familiarly, the ecological destruction that is the byproduct of industrial warfare. By juxtaposing the birds’ vibrant colors with the dark hue of spilled oil, Perillo emphasizes the damage inflicted by human carelessness.
Perillo elaborates on this reckless violence in “Domestic,” exploring the effects of suburbanization on the animals whose habitat it destroys. The ordinary setting, which contrasts with the mythic and exotic ones of “The Second Slaughter,” suggests that readers can daily witness the careless violence observed from afar in the former piece. She writes, “Here the coyote lives in shadows between houses, / feeds by running west to raid the trash behind the store / where they sell food that comes in cans.” The plot is recognizable—trees felled and creeks desiccated, a wild dog scours the city for food. But Perillo’s talent for visceral detail lends the scene a particular pathos:
Picture it [the coyote]
perching on the dumpster, a corrugated
sheet of metal welded to the straight, its haunch
accruing the imprint of the edge until it pounces,
skittering on the cans. It has tried
to gnaw them open and broken all its teeth.
The cans, instruments of violence against the coyote, are again a byproduct of human waste—this time of consumption, rather than warfare. Because the object of harm in this case derives directly from our own habits, one may feel a tinge of guilt: if you’ve ever eaten food from a can, you may have unknowingly inflicted such pain. Perillo further fashions a kinship between the coyote and her readers, asking, “[D]on’t you feel it too? / Haven’t you stood in the driveway utterly confused?” In drawing this parallel between her subject and the audience, Perillo evokes not sympathy but empathy. By allowing us to feel with the coyote rather than merely observe it, Perillo makes the pain inflicted by human carelessness into a human pain. In so doing, the poem implicitly urges us to embrace our ecological cohabitants, since urban sprawl restricts animals and suburbanites alike.
Elsewhere, Perillo depicts mortality in erotic and intimate contexts, demonstrating how pervasive knowledge of death can be. “Bad French Movie,” for example, shows us French actress Isabelle Huppert, who played notable film roles as both a prostitute and a brothel maid. Huppert flashes on the screen of “a peep show booth,” clutching “the wilted bloom of a used Kleenex.” The Kleenex “bloom” illustrates the ribald beauty and intimacy of this moment: as all flowers wane, this one is wilted, which recalls Huppert’s dwindling youth (she is nearing her sixties). In “Hokkaido,” Perillo describes sexuality more directly, closely tying it, as in “Bad French Movie,” to aging. She states, “A thousand years ago the courtesan Shikibu / wrote a thousand poems to her lover, / the references to sex made tasteful through concision / and the image of their kimonos intertwined.” Perillo celebrates Shikibu’s sexuality, which blossoms metaphorically through the proliferation of her writing. The speaker then shifts to tackle her own artistic endeavors, which seem not only to have failed in her younger years but to have diminished with age: “Was that all it was? Dumb animal hunger? / All those years when I thought I was making Art / out of The One Important Thing?” Perillo bemoans her youthful attempts at sublimation as she acknowledges her own mortality: “Once I was so full of juice and certain of its unending.”
Through the violence of nature, domesticity, art, and understanding, we see the central theme of the book: we are inescapably vulnerable, mortal. The “spectrum of possible deaths” is virtually endless. We must step lightly if we are to live in this world, and we must acknowledge others if we intend to persist. But Perillo does not simply press the reader to consider violence’s presence in our daily lives, in our environment, and in our waning sexuality. Rather, she uncovers the redeeming quality of those threats by revealing the abysses between beauty and destruction, recalling Lorca’s duende. These poems identify a necessary violence—one that, at times, can enhance our quotidian experience and render bearable what would otherwise seem mundane. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths awakens us not only to the danger in our lives, but to the splendor that surrounds us, if we just know where to look.