I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature by Lucia Perillo (Trinity University Press, 2007)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
In memory of a favorite local poet, a woman I regret having never met.
I finished reading Lucia Perillo’s memoir, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing, only a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that she’d spent decades living in the city I call home, this was the first time I’d finished a book of hers in its entirety – before her memoir, I’d read snippets of poems, fragments from each of her books.
Despite the fact that Perillo writes almost exclusively about chronic illness and her daily struggle to keep her body in motion, I was shocked to find that she’d passed away nearly a week ago, without the usual cacophony of the literary community. I like to think that this quiet passing was intentional, that after collections of poems and memoirs and essays devoted to the subject of death, Perillo wanted little fanfare for the final event. This was her philosophy, after all. In the last chapter of I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing she writes, “Still, death is our default mode, and the process of maturation means coming to accept our mortal nature with humility and wonder.”
It is only natural then, that Perillo’s memoir is tinged with sharp, painful reminders of death. In one of the earliest chapters in her memoir, she writes about working as a naturalist in the San Francisco Bay, and discovering the dead bodies of gulls washed up on the shore.
“You’d see the gull with it’s thick hide shining and think it was a perfect, sturdy thing. But then a dead gull would turn up in one of the salt ponds that comprised the refuge. And you’d realize that, underneath the feathers, a bird is little more than a skeleton with a beating heart inside. Their beauty is an artifact, created by their constant preening.”
Perillo is unashamed to remind us of the ways that we are like these gulls – skeletons with beating hearts inside, covered only by a thin layer of skin and hair and the clothing we cover ourselves in to stay warm and dry. Perillo is especially attuned to this recognition of weakness, as someone diagnosed with MS and bound to a wheelchair. She writes often about being the one that others look at the way she looked at the gull in the salt pond: as a fragile thing, nearing its end.
I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing beautifully connects man to the natural world through these small reminders of mortality. Later in the book, Perillo uses images of salmon swimming upstream to die in heaps after spawning. Like many citizens of the Pacific Northwest, Perillo journeyed to streams every November to watch the salmon spawn and die, a gathering of living bodies to watch the life cycle in miniature: hatch, swim, spawn, collapse. She writes:
“’Ghost salmon,’ one might say, just as looking at spawned out real fish in the real world of the real wild, they do seem to glow with the spectral quality of ghosts. In the cases of some dead fish, this analogy makes visual sense, as they are often covered with a white fungus that resembles snow.”
Perhaps it is fitting that I write this review when it is nearly November, the time of year that ends Perillo’s memoir, and the time of year in which her life ended. Outside, the fog hangs thick and it rains perpetually, filling the streams with water deep enough for the salmon to breed. Male salmon know that soon after they fertilize the female’s eggs, their lives will end. A boyfriend of mine, an evolutionary biologist, told me that their bodies begin to rot while they are still swimming. We stood at the edge of McClane Creek in Olympia’s Capitol Forest (the same forest where Perillo watched her salmon), and I marveled at how the fish were so numerous I could almost walk along their backs to the other side of the stream.
In Perillo’s poem “Again, the Body,” published in the New Yorker in 2011, she writes:
“this is the problem of the body, not that it is mortal
but that it is mortifying. When we were young they taught us
do not touch it, but who can keep from touching it,
from scratching off the juicy scab?”
Lucia Perillo wrote about death and dying in a way that was real, honest, disgusting, mortifying. She did this not because it was easy, but because she believed in it, in the power and necessity of telling the real story of her own body, and in small ways the story of all of our bodies. Her philosophy on poetics was one of the most painful and the most powerful I’ve ever experienced, and one which I hope to emulate in my own work. She says in her memoir, “I’m trying to teach myself not to be squeamish when it comes to looking, looking being the one thing I can still do.”
In honor of Lucia Perillo, may we all refrain from avoiding the things which frighten us most, from the difficult and disgusting, bloody and unnatural parts of the world. Spectating, after all, is the unique power of the poet. It is the way that poetry initiates change.
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