Lucia Perillo’s poems described life, in all its savage beauty

The Northwest author, who died last year, left behind a collection of whip-smart, stylishly brilliant work.

When Lucia Perillo read her poems at a restaurant in Portland last year, her readers showed up to let her know what she meant to them. One by one, they approached her to tell her how much she meant to them and share stories of their own struggles. Perillo suffered from multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years and wrote about her condition in poems and essays that were matter-of-fact, laced with dark humor, and brave. At the Portland event, she read from a wheelchair and saved her strength to make each word count.

“Exhilarating but also heartbreaking,” said Joseph Bednarik, the co-publisher of Copper Canyon Press. “She was a genius inside a body that was not cooperating.”

Six months after the Portland reading, Perillo died at her home in Olympia. A cause of death was not announced. Perillo was 58 and left behind a husband, a wide circle of friends, and seven books of whip-smart, stylishly brilliant poetry about everything from old boyfriends to shoplifting from a luncheonette to bra fittings to the best way to inseminate an elephant. Life, in all its savage beauty.

The first Perillo poem I read was “The Ghost Shirt.” It has a time stamp — “Museum of Natural History, NYC, 5/1/92, the first day of the riots’’ — and a remarkable opening image:

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“The blue whale swam through blue air in the basement

while upstairs the elephants twined together tusk by tusk,

and the enormous canoe was being rowed by the Tlingit

as they have rowed for years without moving through the dusk

in the Hall of the Americas.”

Perillo goes on to connect the sight of a ghost shirt, a garment the Lakota Sioux believed would guard against bullets to protesters putting their bodies in front of a commuter train to protest the Rodney King verdict. The shirt is artifact and symbol, real and ghostlike, and the poem ends with Perillo trying to explain to her father “what it meant to me to see the ghost shirt/just before Wall Street shut down and every banker/fled.”

Perillo grew up outside New York City and got a degree in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal. She came west to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was a seasonal ranger in Mount Rainier National Park. The active young woman who loved to disappear into the backcountry was…

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