October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
January 22, 2009
When poet and park ranger Lucia Perillo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her thirties, the physical limitations of her body became an overwhelming reality. Whereas she once had gloried in the independence, solitude, and physical strength that carried her through the wildernesses she loved, Perillo gradually became dependent on friends, family, and a wheelchair to facilitate her encounters with the natural world.
How Perillo seeks to transcend these constraints and enable her mind to go where her body can go no longer is the subject of I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature, a remarkable collection of contemplative essays. Without shying away from the rough edges of loss, pain, and bitterness that still cut her, the poet records her wounds in frank but eloquent detail.
Perillo’s “field notes” are observations from a new set of vantage points—the low coastline instead of the remote mountaintop, the wheelchair instead of the skis, the body of a sick woman instead of the “Amazon slut poet of the wilderness” that Perillo once fancied herself to be.1 Some of these meditations are what she refers to as “knowledge games”— exercises that reveal a new understanding of the body and the life that is contained within it. These exercises, she tells us, “substitute for the physical ones I’ve lost”2:
Each bit of new knowledge in these knowledge games is supposed to serve the same purpose as the wads of clay and straw that pioneers once used to chink the gaps between the logs of their cabins. I chink the holes of my losses, like the loss of the mist net. The wind blowing hard is memory, and I’m trying to plug myself until I’m tight against it. Memory, okay, but without so much nostalgic attachment to my bipedal past.3
Perillo’s knowledge games focus outside her body; they use the lives and behaviors of animals to connect her own experiences to those of other animal bodies.
Perillo is a poet by craft, and her descriptions are full of her own poetry and that of the poets whose verses and lives influence her own. John Keats’s sense of mortality, Marianne Moore’s sharp observations of nature, Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness, Anne Sexton’s struggle against societal constraints, Walt Whitman’s insistent vitality in the face of age and illness—each assists her as she describes the physical experiences of her body and disease.
And while Perillo’s poetic prose is evocative, it is also unapologetically willing to make us wince. The sensation in her legs is less like the proverbial pricks of “pins and needles” than “giraffes whose necks are bandaged with sandpaper,” “burning trees being evacuated by squirrels with sharp claws,” “fence-posts sunk into two holes full of concrete [. . .] that’s been wetted down with acid,” and “rubbing against a hot driveway impregnated with broken glass.”4
The physical limitations and suffering Perillo endures and records here are far more severe than what many of her readers will ever experience. Yet what makes these field notes remarkable is not the magnitude of pain and suffering recorded, but the changed perspective of the person who experiences it. The physical courage and confidence of a former climber has been united with a sense of vulnerability and mortality—a sensibility that makes her courage and confidence all the more poignant. But the poetic visionary, the lover of solitude and remote mountain tops, the “Amazon slut poet of the wilderness” is only altered, not effaced, and the view from here remains extraordinary.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Ibid., 169.
4. Ibid., 46.
Erin Sells is a PhD candidate and SIRE Graduate Fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also the project manager for the Collected Prose of T. S. Eliot and is currently completing a book on the modernist origins of the twenty-four hour novel.