In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines the oeuvre of a major American poet at mid-career.
Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press
$23 (hardbound), 240 pages
published March 2016
Esteemed sports writer and NPR commentator Frank Deford is, at first blush, an odd choice to narrate the 2002 PBS documentary The French Impressionists. Thankfully, most viewers are oblivious to, or quickly overlook, Deford’s lack of scholarly credentials upon hearing his emotive and nuanced voiceover, which is particularly moving on the work of Edgar Degas. “Although a traditionalist in so many ways,” Deford asserts, “Degas was absolutely daring in his art—none of the other Impressionists ever chose such unusual perspectives.” While the poetry of Lucia Perillo has little in common with Degas’ vibrant studies of Parisian nightlife—if anything, she is more akin to Rembrandt and the other 17th century Flemish masters, whose paintings veer from starkness to mockery—she shares his fascination with peculiar subjects and daring points of view as a means to understand the strange, contorted truths of human existence. A 2000 MacArthur Fellow and 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Perillo takes readers on a wild journey, where we encounter animal inseminators, gas station arcade games, Paiute ghost shirts behind museum glass, a 16th century cartographer’s woodblocks, and the Mir space station, among a host of other delightful oddities. Restless, original, and vehement, Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones serves as a testament to Lucia Perillo’s singular gifts as an archivist of our volatile will to survive, whose humor and pop-culture awareness make her one of the most resonant American poets writing today.
Perillo’s poems chiefly concern themselves with neglected history, the animal kingdom, and the vulnerability of the human body, and the cumulative effect of her six previous books is vividly corporeal. There are few poems included from Perillo’s debut collection, 1996’s The Body Mutinies, perhaps because they are less discursive and associative than her mature work. Nonetheless, compact stunners such as “How Western Underwear Came to Japan” and the book’s title sonnet, excerpted below, demonstrate Perillo’s authoritative voice and yearning to acknowledge the arbitrary suffering beneath our thin veneer of security:
When the doctor runs out of words and still
I won’t leave, he latches my shoulder and
steers me out doors. Where I see his blurred hand,
through the milk glass, flapping goodbye like a sail
(& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how
words and names – medicine’s blunt instruments—
undid me. And the seconds, the half seconds
it took for him to say those words). For now,
I’ll just stand in the courtyard, watching bodies
struggle in then out of one lean shadow
a tall fir lays across the wet flagstones.
Before the sun clears the valance of gray trees
and finds the surgical-supply shop’s window
and makes the dusty bedpans glint like coins.
The poem impresses for several reasons. First and foremost, it draws a sharp contrast between the emotional and physiological burdens of enduring a medical condition with the clinical act of diagnosis, which, no matter how caring one’s doctor, is merely a gesture of naming that depersonalizes symptoms and pain. Perillo chooses to inhabit the shock—“not griefstruck yet but still amazed”—before the speaker’s mind can process her condition and the impact it will have on her life, yet resists self-pity or a forced epiphany to fulfill the sonnet’s formal pressures. This inner gaze swiftly turns outward, “watching bodies/struggle in then out of one lean shadow/a tall fir lays across the wet flagstones,” which, in the span of two lines, takes us from the individual’s crisis to the collective degeneration of all human bodies that cannot escape their mortality (and perhaps even their inferiority to other species). Lastly, the poem’s enduring, if ambiguous, final image breaks the pattern of slant rhyme and sends us reeling, since Perillo forces us to consider the promise of modern medicine and its exploitative profitability simultaneously.
Perillo’s bold showdowns with death and ceaseless examinations of how we negotiate social norms are her most dynamic strengths, manifesting throughout her later collections. “Ghost Shirt,” “Home,” and the long title sequence from 1999’s The Oldest Map with the Name America seek to salvage history’s forgotten lessons, while “Job Site, 1967” and “Altered Beast” from 2009’s Inseminating the Elephant—a Pulitzer finalist the following year—situate totemic personal memories within the larger contexts of race, socio-economic class, and technology. As in her masterful ten-part epic “Time Will Clean Their Carcass Bones,” which details the process of animal decay with visceral acuity, Perillo’s newest poems continue to fix their gaze upon mortality and ecology. Other standouts among these include “Women in Black,” an homage to the quiet dignity of subjugated women in previous generations who endured oppressive clothing, and “Blacktail,” which narrates a family’s ongoing attempts to keep “the ravenous deer” from destroying their yard “with the footwork/of cartoon thieves.” The latter poem’s final stanza is especially compelling when it cinematically zooms out from the sound of startled deer splashing in a ravine to ponder our continent’s grim history of territorial disputes:
But isn’t that how things end, with a cymbal crash? Leaving
you at the window with not even your rage.
Because you cannot rage at such delicate skeletons—
that is a social misdemeanor—though they have stepped
toward us the way the founding fathers
must have once approached the natives, with their arms
extended, though they bore disease.
Despite their constant reminders of human frailty, Perillo’s poems can be witty, caustic, and at times uproarious, and this wry humor remains a defining feature of her voice. Indeed, over the course of her career, some titles alone elicit a chuckle: “I Could Name Some Names,” “Lubricating the Void,” “First Epistle of Lucia to Her Old Boyfriends,” “Fubar,” “My Big Nose,” “On the High Suicide Rate of Dentists”… the list goes on. Though it eventually weighs several epistemological questions, the opening stanza of “Transcendentalism” reads like a scene from a John Hughes film:
The professor stabbed his chest with his hands curled like forks
before coughing up the question
that had dogged him since he first read Emerson:
Why am I “I”? We hunkered like musk oxen
while his lecture drifted against us like snow.
If we could, we would have turned our backs into the wind.
A wildly imaginative elegy, “My Eulogy Was Deemed Too Strange” from 2005’s Luck Is Luck wrestles with a father’s death by focusing on the speaker’s strangely heroic dream at age five, where “my father battled two fire-breathing white owls” while “dressed like an Apollo astronaut/and we were driving toward the pancake house.” “Chum,” another poem from that same collection, demonstrates Perillo’s ability to reconcile serious and playful turns within the span of a single piece. It also serves as an ars poetica:
How come we all don’t have the luxury of our ghosts?
The way some paintings of salmon
show their spectral versions flying.
License, you might say,
for the artist to put dead fish in the sky.
Instead of leaving them as they are
when you see them wilting in the eddy:
two tons of major spent-sex stink.
Yet see how everyone skips so giddily around the trail—
eyeballing the spawning from this cedar bridge.
As if they’re sure we will be cohorts
in the rapture about which the bumper stickers speak,
as if we really will ascend someday to swim among the fishes.
All of us: see how good we are,
so careful not to kick stones down into the creek.
I’m just trying to get a handle on how it would be
if we made love one time in our lives
(after days spent on the interstate)
before we lay down to die so publicly in shallow pools?
While the other forms pass by and point
to educate their frenzied children:
See the odd species. They choose love.
In Perillo’s lesser work, her usually assured tone turns cynical, and occasionally her commentary about middle-age stalls at mere complaint. Even the title of “January/Macy’s/The Bra Event” suffers from indecisiveness, and as the poem unfolds, its self-conscious diction becomes extravagant to the point of distraction. The following lines seek to describe a lover’s mild titillation at eyeing the underwear section of a department store circular:
Each year when my familiar latches on them so intently
like a grand master plotting the white queen’s path,
like a baby trying to suckle a whole roast beef,
I ask: What, you salt block, are you dreaming
About being clubbed by thunderheads?
The first simile is grandiose while the second ironically dehumanizes the underwear models themselves, and the question that follows rings hollow, as it feigns surprise at a man’s interest in breasts. “Twenty-Five Thousand Volts per Inch” recounts an Allman Brothers Band concert, but contradicts its own depiction. In its third stanza, the speaker compliments the musicians for their “soulfulness,” but less than ten lines later criticizes them for their pillaging of “discographies of black men from the Delta.” While these qualities aren’t mutually exclusive—music can be simultaneously expressive and derivative—the narrative pitches from nostalgia to mocking nostalgia, so the reader can’t ultimately reconcile the poem’s intent or accept its ambiguity. Moreover, certain lines feel uncharacteristically lazy (surely there is a better way to say “the words to the tune about the rambling man”), and later, the ejaculatory “Oh/Bacchus, Dionysus, ye Southern rock stars” fails to clarify whether Perillo aches for earnestness or irony. By the end, it’s hard not to wince at Greg Allman being described as “the brother who was not dead” as he “played another of our childhood songs.”
Perillo’s poor poems are few and far between, and those of us who harvest our own meager verses would be fortunate to have so little chaff among our wheat. Perhaps no other poet save Bob Hicok, Perillo’s contemporary and press-mate, has rendered 21st century America—and the human condition in general—with such tragicomic astuteness. Part encyclopedia, part field guide, and part diary, Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones captures the warmth, fierceness, and moral conscience of a remarkable poet in her prime.
You can reach reviews editor Adam Tavel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Plume’s review policy can be found here.