In 1987 I bought a small, struggling bookstore in my neighborhood. I was a godsend for the then-owner and the store was a godsend for me. Prior, I had studied to become, and became, a rehabilitation counselor. That means, seen in hindsight, that I had engaged in expensive self-help at a very good university and then wandered into a career. The bookstore was a much better fit as it allowed me to associate with books and their makers — loves from a very early age — rather than keeping company with other damaged people and their insurance companies.
Open Books, the name I gave 45th Street Books to cleanse the space of its past, stocked gardening books, science fiction, children’s books, history, fiction, etc. —pretty much all the categories of writing one expects to find in a bookstore. But I came to bookstore ownership with an advanced degree in poetry and a love of the art form so poetry became the section with the most depth. Seven years later I and my wife, Christine Deavel, also a holder of an advanced degree in poetry and a love of the art, moved the store a few blocks and reopened it as Open Books: A Poem Emporium. It was, then, the second poetry-only bookstore in the country, following The Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge, MA. Over the next twenty-one plus years we hosted countless events, offered books for sale at countless off-site events, and met countless poets. The store provided a vibrant and welcome social life. Enter Lucia Perillo.
Lucia Perillo was a dynamic, very engaging and fiercely funny character living in Olympia, WA. A much-lauded poet, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for her first book, and the Kingsley Tufts Award for her mid-career body of work. Books of hers were short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She published seven books of poetry including the generous Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems, published this year by Copper Canyon Press, as well as a collection of short stories and a book of essays. Her writing career was certainly a success and she had an ardent following, but she also was not by any means a celebrity in the poetry sub-culture. I believe that low-key profile in the poetry industry came about as a combination of her personality and her fate, if those can be considered separate things.
A year before Lucia’s first book, Dangerous Life, was published she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She was thirty years old, a park ranger on Mt. Rainier and a teacher at St. Martin’s College in Olympia. M.S. is a disease that disrupts the nervous system and has no known cure. It manifests in either sporadic attacks or as a progressive disease. It lowers life expectancy and promises decline to a severely compromised existence. “As a young woman, I worked as a ranger in a variety of wildernesses, and I was vain about having a body that could paddle me across the sea or climb me to the top of mountains without complaint.” The day after receiving the diagnosis Lucia went skiing alone on Mr. Rainier, having “a dramatic idea about dying in an avalanche.” These quotations come from the introductory essay, “A Glimpse,” in her remarkable I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature. She follows the avalanche metaphor to this, “whatever I say or write today will be outdated tomorrow, because by then I will have slipped to a different place, most likely a lower elevation, at least from the point of view of the flesh. If there’s any consolation to be taken in such a life, the slipping life, it may be in the sheer speed and whooshing of its passage.” She took to her difficult life with the eye and mind of a naturalist, studying her decline into the disease with exacting wit and pain. Exercising the courage required to follow that study, she claimed for herself, and all of us, dignity.
October 16, 2016, at age 58, Lucia Perillo died in Olympia, Washington. The sad news reached us, and I dare say most of Seattle’s and the nation’s poetry-aware folk, on October 23. Seattle is only 61 miles from Olympia. In today’s global-village-social-media-brush-fire-chatter world I have to assume that the slow dissemination of Lucia’s death was intentional. She did not chase renown in the poetry world while alive, a low-key death seems only appropriate.
We first hosted Lucia at Open Books in 1999. She read from The Oldest Map with the Name America: New and Selected Poems, published that year by Random House. We hosted or co-hosted at least six other readings by her over the next seventeen years. And over those years Christine and I got to know Lucia and her husband, James Rudy, developing an easy-going friendship. Often Lucia and James came to the store to visit and buy books when they were spending time in town, usually for her medical appointments. Their visits were quite welcome, holding great grace and good caustic wit. If there were major awards given out for personality Lucia would have won most and been short-listed for the rest. James would have been in the running each and every time, and won some himself.
Lucia is considered a funny writer and it’s true, her poetry and her prose are often humorous, if one accepts a great grim underpinning to the humor. The poem “Limits” from her second book, The Body Mutinies, may provide some insight into the basis of her wit. In that poem she recounts a time that she, working in a wildlife refuge, was present when a man named James, in a group of disabled adults touring the refuge, collapsed on the way into the visitor center. She and a nurse attending to the group administered CPR, the nurse breathing for the fallen man while Lucia compressed his chest. Her description of this process is vivid and the details are repugnant, focused often on the smell of the fallen man’s breath and the saliva and yellow pulp the nurse was enduring. Finally the nurse asked if she would trade places with him. “And I said: No I don’t think I could….” We learn that the man was dead when he fell and no amount of resuscitation would have saved him. The poem proceeds to meditate on the situation and how it haunted Lucia after. Then she writes, “There’s one last thing I didn’t mention— / when I refused to breathe for the dying James / what happened next was that I began to laugh: / a thin laugh, nervous laugh….”
I think my equating this moment with Lucia’s wry, dark, and often self-deprecating humor might not stand up to any kind of close evaluation. But what strikes me is that the humor I find in her work, and I find plenty of it, always has me feeling a little uneasy. When I read a piece by her like this paragraph from her essay “A Cripple in the Wilderness” I laugh, but it certainly is a nervous laugh—
Yet the challenge remains that there is still this day, which has erected itself before us like one of those signs planted in concrete. And I probably will live through it, a day when my friends and I are going to travel a mountain path, and we probably will see a bird or two and a flower or two, and those things should be goddamn good enough for me to record on my list of gratitudes.
A goddamn list of gratitudes; it’s hard not to laugh at that comically outraged expression. But it hurts, too, the frustration that brought her to that point, the frustration that drives the essay. It just seems as though she couldn’t write it without having her nervous energy letting the subject break as wit instead of as tragedy. Which is of course one of the things that makes reading her such a vital pleasure—slinging wit while hiking or, in Lucia’s case, riding a motorized scooter through the valley of the shadow of death will win you a certain following.
Lucia was not a person that sought pity. I think her incipient anger at her situation precluded any desire to profit off it. She didn’t market her writing by focusing on the “back story.” When her book Luck Is Luck came out in 2005 we very happily set up a reading. I think it was her first in the store to entirely take place from a wheelchair. We moved our bits of furniture around, making a place she could get to, and had at the ready a microphone on a low stand, and a table. The audience was seated in a kind of question mark shape with her in the bowl of the loop. There was a very good turnout-- I believe we filled our forty-some chairs and had people standing as well.
I remember this evening particularly because Lucia read from her sequence “Book of Bob,” a spectacularly varied and effective elegy for her father. After she read it several people in the audience, an audience that leaned on her every word, let out a quite audible “awww,” a sound at once sympathetic and appreciative. This is the sound I’ve heard poets say they love to hear from an audience, a sound they think affirms the worth of a poem. There was a moment of silence, then Lucia looked up from her book with almost raptor-like glistening eyes and said “Yeah. Right. Awww.” She was gently mocking her audience! And perhaps at the same time keeping herself at a safe distance from the material. I have no idea exactly what happened that moment, but the experience was delightful. The audience laughed, happily. They’d been got and it had been pointed out to them that they’d been got. There was wonder there, like showing a simple magic trick to a young child—that pleasure of being acted upon and then having it acknowledged that you were acted upon, and all without a price. The other thing I remember thinking when I heard this gentle chide was that that woman is so New York, and she was.
When I was twenty years old I was hit by a car. I couldn’t move and was bleeding a lot. People gathered around me with stricken faces and I became convinced that I was going to die. The injustice of it outraged me and that outrage may have helped me stay conscious. I know this is crass. It is apples to oranges, comparing my experience of the sudden and utterly staining appearance of mortality, followed by a future with a not obvious but still dramatically rearranged body, with Lucia’s predicament/life. Not even two pieces of fruit, the comparison—perhaps it should be apples and steelhead trout or apples and lawn furniture. But I find in her writing amazing courage that speaks to me, personally, on such an intimate level. In her acceptance of the inherent tragedy of living, the awareness of which was forced upon her way too early and way too doggedly, is a lesson in courage to all of us in our various degrees of decline. Her writing is a gift. Her character was a gift. These were gifts she gave by persevering and by chronicling that perseverance. Of course I hear her saying, “Yeah. Right. A gift. Awww.” to which I say back: Yeah. Right. A gift. Thank you.
She has earned the last word. Here is one of my favorite Lucia Perillo poems, found in Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones —
Most days back then I would walk by the shrike tree,
a dead hawthorn at the base of a hill.
The shrike had pinned smaller birds on the tree’s black thorns
and the sun had stripped them of their feathers.
Some of the dead ones hung at eye level
while some burned holes in the sky overhead.
At least it is honest,
the body apparent
and not rotting in the dirt.
And I, having never seen the shrike at work,
can only imagine how the breasts were driven into the branches.
When I saw him he’d be watching from a different tree
with his mask like Zorro
and the gray cape of his wings.
At first glance he could have been a mockingbird or a jay
if you didn’t take note of how his beak was hooked.
If you didn’t know the ruthlessness of what he did —
ah, but that is a human judgment.
They are mute, of course, a silence at the center of a bigger silence,
these rawhide ornaments, their bald skulls showing.
And notice how I’ve slipped into the present tense
as if they were still with me.
Of course they are still with me.
They hang there, desiccating
by the trail where I walked, back when I could walk,
before life pinned me on its thorn.
It is ferocious, life, but it must eat,
then leaves us with the artifact.
Which is: these black silhouettes in the midday sun,
strict and jagged, like an Asian script.
A tragedy that is not without its glamour.
Not without the runes of the wizened meat.
Because imagine the luck! — to be plucked from the air,
to be drenched and dried in the sun’s bright voltage —
well, hard luck is luck, nonetheless.
With a chunk of sky in each eye socket.
And the pierced heart strung up like a pearl.
John W Marshall, writing as J.W. Marshall, has had work published in Poetry Northwest, Hubbub, and other magazines. His full-length collection, Meaning A Cloud, won the Field Poetry Prize and was published by Oberlin College Press. He sometimes offers classes through the Hugo House