Renowned author and poet Lucia Perillo died in her Olympia home October 16 of unknown causes. Her passing was reported by her publisher, Port Townsend’s Copper Canyon Press. She was 58.
Perillo’s 2009 poetry collection, Inseminating the Elephant, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. Her most recent collection was 2016’s Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems. Among her other published poetry collections are On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (2012), Luck Is Luck: Poems (2005) and The Body Mutinies (1996). Perillo had been living with multiple sclerosis since her diagnosis in 1988. Her 2012 collection of short prose fiction, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. She won the Washington State Governor’s Arts Medal in 2012.
“We’ve lost one of America’s most original poetic voices,” Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall told OLY ARTS, “and one of the greatest poets Washington state may ever have. Her loss in my mind is equal to the level of Theodore Roethke.” He added, “I consider Lucia Perillo to be one of the most unique and important voices in American contemporary poetry…(H)er sense of what a poem is is absolutely unique. She had an amazing wit and a great sense of humor, both of which came through every time I interacted with her…Her poems were so rich, so full of pop culture and science…(S)he took so much in and gave it back to us in really amazing poetry.”
Perillo taught at Saint Martin’s University, Southern Illinois University, Warren Wilson College and Syracuse University, where she received her master’s degree in English. She was a 2000 MacArthur Genius Fellow. She also carried a degree in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Prior to teaching, she worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Animal Damage Control research facility in Denver, Colorado.
“Rot is probably my favorite subject,” Perillo told Sophie Grimes of Publishers Weekly in March. “It’s aesthetically beautiful, really, the process of decay, and biologically quite complex. I suppose the reason I’m drawn to it has to do with my own conditions of living.”
“Early Cascade” is a 2006 Perillo poem republished on PoetryFoundation.org:
I couldn’t have waited. By the time you return
it would have rotted on the vine.
So I cut the first tomato into eighths,
salted the pieces in the dusk
and found the flesh not mealy (like last year’s)
even when I swallowed the green crown of the stem
that made my throat feel dusty and warm.
Pah. I could have gagged on the sweetness.
The miser accused by her red sums.
Better had I eaten the dirt itself
on this the first night in my life
when I have not been too busy for my loneliness—
at last, it comes.