12-04-09

 

Lucia Perillo

 

Jury Selection

If they could only have put that in the papers, how the winter

     light hangs thickly in those southern Massachusetts towns,

sucking orange at four p.m. from the last spasm of daylight, then

     glowing morbid and humming

with a sound barely audible-- not human, more like some rasping

     harmonic twanged

from the animated hulk of machinery that somewhere keeps it

     all running: this town

where the fish have been abandoned for over a century, the old

     men left

with just the memory of fish swimming in their bones, telling stories

     about the Azores

from their perch on rusty forty-gallon drums that have come to

     rest on the riprap

that's been brought in to seal the village from the sea.  And what

     it would feel like to be a man

walking around smothering in the fester of all that-- you can

     almost understand why they did it,

raped that woman on the pool table at Big Dan's in the broad

     daylight of Bobby Darin singing for a quarter

                 ...now that mackie's back in town...

                                    and the mown green felt smelling

 of wet wool and-- yes sweet jesus-- even fish, their blood

     stirring with the sea.

You can almost understand why a woman would have needed it.

 

But before it gets too complicated, remember: we're supposed

     to work with only the available labels

to construct questions that will discern shades of meaning, measure

     culpability.  Whether this woman

has a houseful of gray babies in dirty sleepers, which one's father

     has been named,

where it has happened before, who had drunk which kind of 

     liquor and how much.  She says she only went in for a minute

to tug on the silver nozzles of the cigarette machine, but

     the thin curtains that line her bedroom windows

are clearly visible from the street.  The whole town knows.  Even

     some of these young men

carry the blue nickels of her thumbprints on the backs of their

     thighs from this time,

but also the times before.  Who whimpered, which ones came

     in her

and how often, which ones merely watched without speaking 

     from the threshold.

 

The men were of a darker race, refusing to use our language,

     their dark arms braced

in the ancestral motions of urging we just dimly remember, which

     still arouses us, even in our embarrassment, through the

     electric current

of testimony.  Whether a crime has been committed (because the

     woman has her Chesterfields, the change coins clenched &

     sweaty in her palm)

or not, their longboned faces make this offense more palpable--

     the slick skin

and elegant, hard moustaches recalling the  brown eyes of our

     own lives, when out of darkness,

the vestiges of an anger we do not claim to know rise up

     in our bodies

and we seize them and do violence.

 

We all do violence.

 

Because the woman was as dark as any of the others,

with no green card and a name you won't find in the phone book.

What is on trial here is a thousand years of women plodding on

     thick legs, their arms draped with string baskets,

towards some market on another continent, where boats pull into

     the waiting lips of shore
to meet these women and laud the correctness of their sexless

     march with fruit, and cod, and men

come home with the musk of Ecuadorian whores still riding their

     loins.

In the end, the real trial takes place in words exchanged

in pissed-up alleyways between tight stone buildings, in words

that are to us guttural and pronounced with too much tongue.

And on the streets of town, in the late afternoon light,

mothers tear their dresses away from stout provincial breasts,

     and carry placards, and weep,

and spit at no one in particular--

for the love of their sons,

not the love of their daughters. 

 

-from Dangerous Life

BIO: Lucia Perillo grew up in the suburbs of New York City. She earned a BSc in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before earning an MA in English from Syracuse University.

 

Perillo was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Dangerous Life (1989), which won the Norma Farber Award from the Poetry Society of America; The Body Mutinies (1996), winner of the Kate Tufts prize from Claremont University; The Oldest Map with the Name America (1999); Luck is Luck (2005), a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and won the Kingsley Tufts prize from Claremont University; Inseminating the Elephant (2009), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress; Spectrum of Possible Deaths (2012); and Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems (2016).

 

Perillo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 30s. Her collection of essays, I've Heard the Vultures Singing (2005), is a clear-eyed and brazenly outspoken examination of her life as a person with disabilities. She also published a book of short stories, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain (2012), a sharp-edged, witty testament to the ambivalence of emotions, the way they pull in directions that often cancel one another out or twist their subjects into knots.

 

Perillo taught at Syracuse University, Southern Illinois University, Saint Martin's University, and in the Warren Wilson MFA program. Perillo was awarded a prestigious MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2000. Perillo lived in Olympia, Washington, until her death in 2016.