Lucia Perillo, an award-winning poet who wielded a fine-edged wit, unflinchingly dissecting mortality in verses that drew upon her suffering from multiple sclerosis, died Oct. 16 at her home in Olympia. She was 58.
Her husband, Jim Rudy, confirmed her death but did not disclose the cause.
Perillo published her first collection of poetry, “Dangerous Life,” in 1989, shortly after her 30th birthday and two years after the diagnosis of her illness. A naturalist by training, she turned to full-time writing when she could no longer look forward to physically demanding work in the outdoors.
A decade into her career, and after the publication of two more poetry volumes, she received a 2000 MacArthur fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.” Ten years later, her collection “Inseminating the Elephant” (2009) became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
In her writings, which appeared in magazines including the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, Perillo coupled the observational rigor of a field researcher with a conversational language all her own. Her subject matter veered from a scene of prostitutes in a grocery line to Girl Scouts in song, from a bra fitting to the impregnation of an elephant in captivity.
Much of her most celebrated poetry touched on death and, directly or indirectly, on her physical affliction. By the time of her MacArthur fellowship, Perillo required the use of a wheelchair. Once, when a doctor resorted to the cliche “pins and needles” in suggesting a description of the pain in her leg, she corrected him.
“No, it’s more like rubbing against a hot driveway impregnated with broken glass,” she said.
“Oh, right,” the physician replied, “you’re the poet.”
She referred to her body as “just a ball and chain,” a “meat cage.” In her poem “Women Who Sleep on Stones,” she observed: “If I sleep on my belly, pinning it down, / my breasts start puling like baby pigs / trapped under their slab of torpid mother.”
Another poem, “Again, the Body” began:
When you spend many hours alone in a room
you have more than the usual chances to disgust yourself -
this is the problem of the body, not that it is mortal
but that it is mortifying.
She cited “rot” as her “favorite subject” but also told Poets & Writers magazine that she had “never been interested in being a ‘disabled poet.’” She said she endeavored to write poems that could be read and appreciated whether or not the reader knew of her illness.
“I wanted them to foster two readings,” she said. “Two layers. Where you could step into the poem on whatever layer you wanted to step into it on.”
By critical assessment, Perillo succeeded.
“I have two words for anyone who wants to know why people turn to poetry in times of need: Lucia Perillo,” Robert Lawton, a literature scholar, wrote in the New York Times in 2005. “She’s the funniest poet writing today, which is saying a lot, since she’s also the poet most concerned with the treachery practiced on us daily by our best friends and worst enemies, our bodies.”
He cited in particular her lines in “Christmas at Forty”: “How unexpected life is,” the speaker remarks. “One minute you’re a punk driving around / in Eddie Butterford’s blue Dodge, hashing / out the script for whatever happens next,” and then “somehow you end up / with a whole mortgageful of ornaments in the attic / and even a green metal stand to triangulate the trunk.”
Lucia Maria Perillo was born in New York City on Sept. 30, 1958, the daughter of a lawyer and a librarian.
She studied wildlife management at McGill University in Montreal, where she graduated in 1979. She worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later held a seasonal job at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington while pursuing a master’s degree in English at Syracuse University, which she received in 1986. An early mentor was the poet Robert Hass, later a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Perillo published seven books of poetry in total, including “The Body Mutinies” (1996), “The Oldest Map With the Name of America” (1999),“Luck Is Luck” (2005), “On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths” (2012) and, most recently, “Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones” (2016).
She also wrote a collection of essays, “I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature” (2007), and a book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest, “Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain” (2012). She taught at Syracuse University, Southern Illinois University and Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash.
Survivors include her husband of 23 years, Jim Rudy of Olympia; her mother, Marie Kucija Perillo of Irvington, New York; a sister; and two brothers.
Perillo once wrote that a sunrise “often makes me scream, what with the very idea of another day” in her condition.
And yet, she wrote in an essay, while a therapist “felt that my giving up on hope had darkened my outlook, I think hope shackled me to my body as it dropped like dead weight to the floor of the sea. And surrendering hope has left me feeling unburdened, lighter, strangely giddy as I float.”
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