Lucia Perillo read at our school a number of years ago, and a few things struck me right away. First, she was funny, and her poems were funny and accessible and something that her audience thoroughly enjoyed. I also noticed that most of her poems were narratives. At the reading, she said she was interested in writing short fiction, and I could understand why. All the poems she read told stories. Finally, many of her poems were long–yet they still held our attention. I went out and bought The Body Mutinies right away.
The poem I’m about to share is a good example of what I liked about her that night. It has humor, is accessible, and is long. In fact, I was amazed when I typed it out: it’s over 1000 words. I also like this poem because it so skillfully weaves different experiences together. Lucia says she has a natural instinct for this–playing off ideas, little tangents that bring out the deeper meaning. What do you make of deeper meaning drawn from the last two words, “shallowest waters”? This poem also does something she believes in: it focuses on things most of us would be uncomfortable sharing about ourselves.
Here’s the poem:
The dead man.
Every now and again, I see him.
And the wildlife refuge where I worked then,
the shallow ponds of Leslie Salt Company
patchworking the San Francisco Bay edges
and spreading below the hills like broken tiles,
each pond a different color—from blue to green
to yellow until finally the burnished red
of terra-cotta, as the water grew denser
and denser with salt. Dunlins blew upwards
like paper scraps torn from a single sheet,
clouds of birds purling in sunlight, harboring
the secret of escaped collision. And
that other miracle: how the weightless tufts
could find half their way to Tierra del Fuego
and make it back before spring’s first good day.
On those good days, a group from the charity ward
named after the state’s last concession to saints
would trudge up the hill to the visitor center,
where I’d show them California shorebirds
—a stuffed egret, western sandpiper, and avocet
whose feathers were matted and worn to shafts
from years of being stroked like puppies.
As I guided their hands over pelts
questions stood on my tongue—mostly
about what led them to this particular life,
its days parceled into field trips
and visits to the library for picture books
with nurses whose enthusiasms were always greater
than their own. Their own stalled out
before reaching the moist surface of their eyes,
some of the patients fitting pigeonholes built
in my head, like Down’s syndrome and hydrocephaly.
But others were not marked in any way,
and their illnesses cut closer to the bones
under my burnt-sienna ranger uniform.
Maybe I was foolish to believe in escape
from the future carried in their uncreased palms:
our lives overseen by the strict, big-breasted nurse
who is our health and our debts or even
our children, the her who is always putting crayons
and lumps of clay in our hands, insisting
we make our lives into some crude but useful thing.
And one day a man, a patient who must have been
supervised by his strict heart, fell down
suddenly and hard, on his way up the hill.
Two nurses prodded him on toward the building,
where he went down again like a duffel bag full of earth
in front of the reception desk where I was sitting.
I watched the one male nurse turn pale as ash
when he knelt to certify the heartbeat
of this man whose lips were blue and wet.
The other nurse took the group to the auditorium,
saying James isn’t feeling very well right now.
James is sick. Get away from him. Then I heard
the dopey music of the automated slide show
behind those doors from which she never reappeared.
The male nurse was too young to leave stranded
with a man down on the smooth wood floor:
his cheeks still velvet, his dark fingers
worrying the valleys of the man’s white wrist.
He’s okay, He’s breathing, as the man’s skin
turned the same gray slapped on the hulls of ships,
his mouth open, a cherry sore at either edge.
I don’t remember what I did at first,
I must have puttered off to perform some
stupid task that would seem useful—
gathering some premoistened towelettes
or picking up the phone while the nurse repeated
He’s okay, He’s breathing. But the colors
got worse until nothing could spare me
from having to walk my hand in the crease
of the man’s blue throat, where his carotid
should have pulsed. Nothing.
I said You breathe for him and I’ll compress,
and for a while we worked together like a clumsy
railroad handcar, me humping at arm’s length
over the ribs, the nurse sealing his lips around
the man’s scabbed mouth, while yellow mucus
drained from James’s eyes and nose and throat.
Each time the nurse pressed his mouth to the man’s
like a reluctant lover, the stink of cud
was on his lips when he lifted up. Sometimes
he had to hold his face out to the side,
to catch a few breaths of good salt air.
Until he was no longer able to choke back his gut
and asked if I would trade places with him.
For a minute I studied the man’s stoved-in chest,
which even my small knuckles hand banged to jelly,
then the yellow pulp that flecked the nurse’s lips,
that sour, raw smell from their mix of spit.
And I said: No. I don’t think I could . . .
It’s strange what we do with the dead
—burning them or burying them in earth—
when the body always tries to revert to water.
Later, a doctor called to say the man’s heart
had exploded like a paper sack: death hooked him
before he even hit the floor. So everything we did
was useless—we might as well have banged a drum
and blown into a horn. And notice how I just said “we”—
as though the nurse and I had somehow married
spirits in a pact of gambled blood, when in truth
the nurse, like the man, rode off in an ambulance,
the man for a pointless go-round in the ER, the nurse
for a hot of gamma-globulin, while I stood
in the parking lot, picking lint off my shirt.
End of story. Except since then James
has followed me , sometimes showing up at the house
to read my gas meter, sometimes behind the counter
where he asks what I owe. No surprise then
that I’ve made m life with another James,
who swears my biggest defect is still the limits
on what I’ll bring myself to do for someone else.
I know there are people who’ll cut out their kidney
to replace a friend’s cankered one, people
who’ll rush into burning buildings to save the lives
of strangers. But every time I ponder selflessnesss
I hear the beats of my heart, that common loon,
most primitive of birds. Then life seems most
like a naked, frail thing that must be protected,
and I have suddenly become its mother, paddling
furiously with my own life saddled on my back.
There’s one last thing I didn’t mention—
when I refused to breathe for the dying James
what happened next was that I began to laugh:
a thin laugh, nervous laugh . . . but loud enough
to drift outside, where it stood on the hill
and creaked its wings a minute before lifting—
over the levees, across those shallowest waters.