Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Lives of the Optimists




Nearly ten years ago at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I had the good fortune to take courses with poet Lucia Perillo and once (as a fellow grad student) with poet Paul Guest.

Both individuals possess sharp intellects, good humor, and a serious dedication to writing. I respect and envy them tremendously.

Katha Pollitt calls Perillo's poems "tragicomedies of everyday life." John Ashbery considers each of Guest's poems "an act of defiance."

These titanic blurbsters are referring to the fact that both poets live with physical limitations: Perillo with multiple sclerosis; Guest with paralysis due to a childhood accident.

If you want to plunge into Perillo's personal life, read her absorbing essay collection, I've Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature.
Even though the disappearance of one's young body is a tired lament, it is especially galling to me not only because of how I once worshipped at the temple of of physical fitness, but also because of the extremity of my body's being sacked. When I asked [my husband] the other day how he could stand making love to such a freak, he said: "That's what eyelids are for" ... So we keep our eyes shut, though actually the dropped lid was always my preference--I never wanted to see the face that makes the cry that poet Louise Gl├╝ck calls "the low, humiliating / premise of union."
Guest opens his book My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge on a similar note, with the poem "User's Guide to Physical Debilitation."
Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days ...

When not an outright impossibility
or form of neurological science fiction,
sexual congress will either be with
tourists in the kingdom of your tragedy,
performing an act of sadistic charity;
with the curious, for whom you will be beguilingly blank canvas;
or with someone blindly feeling their way
through an extended power outage
caused by summer storms you once thought romantic ...
In her collection Luck Is Luck, Perillo dedicates the poem "Fubar" to Guest, a connection I only just noticed and which speaks to shared experiences.
... But in last night's hypnagogic dreamscape where I went
to collect some data. Where I was just getting into the swing of things
tranquility-wise. Then this kid came rolling through the moonlight
in a bed with lots of Rube Goldberg traction rigging.
And it was a kid like you, some kid with a broken neck ...

But come on, the sun is rising, I'll put a bandage on my head,
and we'll be like those guys at the end of the movie--
you take this crutch made from a stick.
For you the South is a mess, what with its cinders and its smoldering.
And looky, looky here at me: I'm playing the piccolo.
"Day 354" photo by SuperFantastic

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