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Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Perillo. Copper Canyon Press. 2011.

inseminating the elephant

Reviewed June 29, 2012 by Stephen Burt.

Life is confusing and painful and ends in death, often preceded by gradual bodily failure. Life is so marvelous that we can never fully say how marvelous. And life is just funny sometimes: we lose half of it if we take it all seriously. Any of these three claims would be enough for a poet's career. Lucia Perillo pursues, and combines, them all, in poems that people who do not read much contemporary poetry ought to enjoy, alongside those (like me) who read lots of it all the time.

Perillo has that elementary gift, the ability to write, clause by clause, so that those who have never read her before want to keep reading. "Most of the hospital's emergencies lay/ on gurneys that made a chickadee noise." "At night the bones move where the animals take them." "The family sank into its sorrows--/ we softened like noodles in a pot." These opening lines promise (accurately) that if we keep going we will not be bored. The poems find variety not only in their scenes and situations (shoplifters and Elvis impersonators and disassembled antique planes, a "Snowstorm with Inmates and Dogs") but in the shapes that they give their lines, and in their words; polysyllabics and monosyllables, scientific terms and slangy ones—as in life, almost anything can follow anything else: "One of these days I'm going to get myself an avatar/ so I can ride an archaeopteryx in cyberspace--/ goodbye, the meat cage."

Such language, so light at times, so full of whimsy, can seem to rise far above material fact: Perillo's poems are like fast-moving hot air balloons, brightly colored, unpredictable, fun to watch, high above ground. Yet (like those balloons) their shadows remain on the ground: the shadows, the grim parts, the grounds in Perillo's poems are the requirements and the limits of bodies, both human and animal— of the "meat cage." One poem starts with Seinfeldian offhand annoyance: "I am not happy about having to become a cell phone person." Yet the same poem (speculating on cyborgs, on gadgetry) reveals deep frustration at the limits of human flesh: "Why can't the mind simply roll around on its own wheels?/ Why can't the body be rewired like a lamp?" We might ask such questions even if we do not, like Perillo, have particular reason to want our own bodies rewired. The poet learned in 1988 that she had multiple sclerosis; she now uses a wheelchair, and describes herself as "housebound to some extent." Perillo prepared, long before her diagnosis, to think about bodies and biology, their limits and their exigencies: during the 1980s she worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and new poems remember her old jobs, dissecting a "White Rat" at the "Denver Wildlife Research Center" or examining "The Turtle's Heart":

Back in the lab, we fished up from the hole
the muscle's pointy end and tied it
to an oscillograph whose pen-arm moved at first in even sweeps.
Until a drop
of substance X made the graph go wild—
the heart scrawling in its feral penmanship
see what little of yourself you own.

Perillo has published a fine book of prose essays, I've Heard the Vultures Singing (2007); her poems from the 1990s could feel too much like essays, with too little surprise in line, in form. These new poems avoid that mistake, and they can make good use of the compressions and omissions possible only in poems. "You were a man and I used to be a woman/ before we first put our quarters in": that's the first couplet of "Altered Beast," about the video game of the same name. Other poems have minatory or mournful features that emerge only once we reread them. In "January/ Macy's/ The Bra Event," ads for the bra sale fascinate Perillo's husband but make her melancholy and send her outdoors:

Now the sky is having its daily rain event
and the trees are having their hibernal bark event,
pretending they feel unruffled
despite the absence of their leaves. And we forget how they looked
all flouncy and green. Instead we regard
fearfully the sway of their old trunks.

Women, like trees, grow old; men grow old, too, but men are not so constantly, commonly told to stay flouncy and green.

Perillo has figured out how to use, in poetry, tones we know mostly from conversation, from prose: the flip, the sarcastic, the infinitely bemused, the frustrated-past-endurance, the temporarily mollified. She directs her sarcasm not at the unalterable conditions of the universe, but at the human beings who take advantage of privilege, leaving other people to clean up after them: "Many of the great men—Buddha, Saint Augustine,/ Jefferson, Einstein—had a woman and child/ they needed to ditch." Nor does she aim such barbs at men alone: why is there "no food in Sappho's poems"?

Who cooked the meat and carted off the chamber pots
so Sappho could stroll under the olive boughs so unencumbered
by her body, her reputedly squat wrestler's body
thereby left free to strum her lyre? I am not saying
it is an easy thing to write a poem that will be remembered
for three thousand years, but it is a harder thing
to build a temple out of rocks.

So frequently bemused or exasperated, Perillo can also get exhilarated, or (figuratively) shocked, since the world gives her (as it gives us all) more sensations, more data, than we can comprehend. Yet she, and we, keep living in it: we are drawn, beyond reason, to what can excite or amuse. In a poem called "Twenty-Five Thousand Volts Per Inch" Perillo remembers an Allman Brothers reunion concert where she saw someone get a literal shock: "He lurched and spun and lurched and fell,/ a messenger from the ancient cults// until" he vomited and collapsed, at which point the EMTs bore him away and

we could resume
holding each other, like two swigs of mouthwash.
Then the brother who was not dead
played another of our childhood songs.

Life is weirder and more various than the life we encounter in most poets' poems, but it is not much weirder than Perillo has it here: death and romance, nausea and young love, nostalgia and mouthwash, the unappeasable forces of nature and the force of amplified old-school rock. It is her version of Robert Frost's "'Out, Out—,'" subtler and more bearable than his own.

Perillo writes poems—so her title poem says—for the same reasons that zoologists and their technicians perform the title's icky operation:

Because what the news brings us
is often wheelbarrows of dung—suffering,
with photographs. And so long as there is suffering
there should also be baby elephants.

The same poem refers directly (as this book rarely does) to Perillo's MS: "now I've alluded/ to my body that grows ever more inert—better not overdo/ lest you get scared; the sorrowing world/ is way too big." But Perillo is no weighty autobiographer: compared to ecology, or to sex, or to grief, she does not take writing seriously at all, and she sometimes mocks the people who do. Her poem "Transcendentalism" remembers collegiate lectures on Emerson:

The professor drew a giant eyeball to depict the Over-soul.
The he read a chapter from his own book:
He didn't care if our heads tipped forward on their stalks.

And yet the poem does not end in mockery: the professor's devotion to literature as such (he does not care whether he amuses his students) stands up sadly and honorably against Perillo's desire that she, and we, remain entertained.

This poet at her best displays what T. S. Eliot meant by "wit": "a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible." Yet she suggests (against Eliot's famous claim) that contemporary poetry cannot be overtly difficult, lest it end up ("naptime") without any readers at all. Indeed, she can seem desperate to hold our attention: "Don't look up, because the ceiling is suffering/ some serious violations of the electrical code." Her poems face up to a dilemma that most living poets ignore (or else complain about in prose): how can mere words, without stories, the words in a poem, get and hold attention, given how much else competes for our eyeballs, our time? These poems are as contemporary in their desperation as in their exasperation: if they do not grab you (so they imply) nothing will. And they are contemporary in their pleasures, too. It's tempting to place Perillo, with her collector's bent, her philia for the bizarre, her liking for long sentences and overt surprises, into a cluster of neo-Baroque poets, neither plain-style nor avant-garde (Angie Estes, Robyn Schiff, Patty Seyburn, perhaps Allan Peterson). It's tempting (and it might be easier) to place her with other successful proponents of humor in essaylike poems (most of all Albert Goldbarth, but also David Kirby, Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby). If you like any of them, you'll like what Perillo can do. And if you haven't heard of any of them—if you are a fan, say, of This American Life, who wants to see radio's virtues reflected in poems; who wants to read current poetry in principle, but hasn't read much of it in practice yet—Perillo makes one of the very best places to start.

Editor's note: This review appeared first in San Francisco Panarama.


Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. His recent books include The Art of the Sonnet (with David Mikics) and Why I Am Not a Toddler and Other Poems by Cooper Bennett Burt (Age One); a new book of poems, Belmont, will appear in 2013.

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