The Rest is Silence — I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes
on Poetry, Illness, and Nature
by Lucia Perillo

From the Publisher:

“During her days as a park ranger, Lucia Perillo loved nothing more than to hike the Cascade Mountains alone, taking special pride in her daring solo skis down the raw, unpatrolled slopes of Mount Rainier. Then in her thirties she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing Perillo confronts, in stark but often comic terms, the ironies and losses of going from an outdoors person to someone who can no longer walk.

With unusual candor and a restless intelligence, Perillo writes about how to lower one’s expectations just enough for a wilderness experience, what it’s like to experience eros as a sick person, and how poetry provides an alternative means to access nature…”

“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters,” W.H. Auden famously asserted, and the Ancient Masters more so. The god who bestowed on humankind the gifts of light, reason and poetry, could also send the arrows of plague, as we learn at the beginnings of Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. “Account no man happy ‘til he dies,” the chorus reminds us as the blind king is led into exile.

Popular responses to catastrophic illness tend to veer toward the sentimental: How I Fought Disease, or alternatively, How My Disease Made Me a Better Person. As the late Susan Sontag observed many years ago, we inflect our illnesses with moral significance. Although many people find these narratives consoling or even inspirational, Lucia Perillo does not, even while multiple sclerosis is dismantling her neuromuscular system, circumscribing a life that once relished physical freedom in the wilderness. Her response is more than just whistling past the graveyard. Like a face full of Pacific Northwest stream water (of which Perillo keenly writes), this small collection of essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature, is a temporary stay against sentimentalism by facing her body’s insults without flinching, talking herself into courage.

Perillo’s title adverts, of course, to T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” but here there is no mermaids’ song. However, there is “Birdsong” in which our poet offers an extended reflection on the human presence in the natural disorder and the human tendency to try to order it. She attempts to learn to identify birds’ songs, providing readers with visual doodles and verbal homonyms to capture the rising, turning, falling of the songs:

What appeals to me in birds’ songs is the unabashedness of their desires, blasting so loudly I can almost forget my own body as I lie there listening while the sun climbs above the eastward mountains.

— p. 167

Recalling Peter Matthiessen’s anecdote of a mountain-top holy man, Perillo remarks:

…he doesn’t let fretting after knowledge interfere with his listening and the music’s nameless seeping-in, as he sits in his spot in the Himalayas where the soil is too thick to allow for burial and the human dead are chopped up and left for birds to eat… The birds that take part in the “sky funeral” are vultures, birds that portion off the dead. And I can find no entry for vulture on the definitive [birdsong audio] tape, no song or call or chatter or whinny or drum. These graveyard-workers, the tidy-uppers of mortality, remain resolutely mute.

— p. 176

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