I heard Lucia Perillo read on a December evening at Orca Books in 2010. The following week Perillo was the featured poet at the Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute in Washington, D.C. To the handful of us seated in our metal folding chairs, she recounted her excitement when the Folger Shakespeare Library originally contacted her to share her favorite Dickinson poems with some of her own. But now as the freezing rain pelted Orca’s windows, she admitted she was nervous, worried about flying all that way and disappointing the audience assembled in the regal theatre for the annual literary event. She asked us to listen and candidly tell her whether we felt she was living up to what the Folger had invited her to do.
By then, Perillo was already an established, award-winning poet. Her debut collection, Dangerous Life, won the heralded Samuel Morse Poetry Prize in 1989. She received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2000. And in 2010, Inseminating the Elephant won the Washington State Book Award and the Library of Congress’s Bobbit Prize on its way to being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Of course, that night at our independent bookstore, she was brilliant even in her slightly, less-polished, practice run. And although the intimacy of the evening should have encouraged me to treat her like the hometown Olympian she was, I felt just poetry-struck enough that I couldn’t walk the few feet to introduce myself, wish her safe travels, or at the very least thank her for coming out on a horrible winter evening to share her love of poetry.
In the next three years, Perillo received the Washington State Governor’s Arts Medal; her 2013 collection On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. While the effects of her multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in 1988, continued to limit her physical playing field, the former Mt. Rainier park ranger and college professor persevered using poetry to keep herself metaphysically in motion with her readers. I continue to be one of them.
The final lines of “Thinking About Illness After Reading About Tennessee Fainting Goats” remind me of that icy December night, remind me of all great poets’ enduring legacies, no matter the circumstances of their lives or deaths: “How cruel, gripes a friend. But maybe they show/us what the body’s darker fortunes mean–/ we break, we rise. We do what we’re here for.”
Lucia Perillo died at her home in Olympia on October 16, 2016. She was 58. Earlier this year Copper Canyon Press published her seventh collection of new and selected poems, Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones.
To gain deeper insight into Lucia Perillo’s poetic sensibilities, check out the blog she kept from 2002— years: “Lucia’s Anthology: Great Poems Known and Unknown”
Sandra Yannone is a poet, educator, and antique dealer in Olympia. She is a Member of the Faculty and Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College.