The Oldest Map with the Name America: New and Selected Poems

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Lucia Perillo's poetry embodies a sensibility at once personal and national. Many of her poems are candid and affecting--some document how she negotiates life with multiple sclerosis; others concern her working-class Catholic childhood in a small Hudson River town. But in general, and even in these personal works, her poetry picks up the fragments of American culture--Bart Simpson, crimes of violence, Girl Scouting, teen rebellion, redneck survivalists--and assembles them into a highly readable and illuminating cultural commentary. One poem, "Foley," blends the subjects of  movie sound effects and phone sex to make the point that in electronic America things are seldom as they seem--or sound. In "For I Have Taught the Japanese," an ESL instructor confesses, "I was such/an idiot I even tried to apologize more than once/for Nagasaki." In a third, Perillo thumbs through a survivalist magazine to see what it has to offer to her newborn nephew: "They're hawking a T-shirt: I entered the world/fat, mad, and bald, and I plan on leaving that way."  
The texture of Lucia Perillo's writing is conversational, poignant, often mordantly funny. The structure of her work is architectural in its grandeur, dramatic in its impact. Taken together, the poems in The Oldest Map with the Name America present the reader with an important new way of looking at the world--a vision that in its coherence provides us with a deep and original understanding of what we're all about, as individuals and as a culture.
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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
...[C]hattering, obstreperous, resentful, sexy poems....This is gonzo poetry.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Whether recalling the first moon landing ("Apollo") or reflecting on sound enhancement during a film's post-production ("Foley"), Perillo, in her mature work, manages to weave stark erotic confessions into the fabric of mass culture, all the while reeling off a taut and jaunty music in line after line. The first half of Perillo's third collection selects from her two university press books, Dangerous Life and The Body Mutinies. There, the collisions of a "dangerous life" (which the poet sports as a "merit badge") with self-betraying bodies are always evident, but seldom with the extended lyrical panache one finds in the more recent poems, like "The Sutro Baths": "They were viscera inside the city,/ another window in a row of windows painted black,/ a name trafficked in the freebie papers, hothouse/ orchid without any petals, the sex parts gorged/ & becoming the flower's lusher hub." Perillo's best recent poems enact quirky dramas: "Palimpsest" finds the poet on a shoreside stroll, jousting with Socrates, Derrida and even Plato, "who has floundered off/ in cloudy collegiate bongwater toward my brain's/ furthest neural atoll." One might quibble that this and similar poems, like "Short Course in Semiotics," only glancingly take on their professed subjects ("words like `patriarchy' and `oppression'... have been Mixmastered into her thinking"), and fall short of Susan Wheeler's all-out assaults on the decorum of allusion. Nevertheless Perillo's clear-minded, clearly amused musings will appeal to "a teenager in Army fatigues," "scientists in Seattle" and bored graduate students alike. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375501609
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/2/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Lucia Perillo has published two previous  collections: The Body Mutinies,for which she won the PEN/Revson Foundation Poetry Fellowship and several other awards, and Dangerous Life, which received the Norma Farber Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and The Kenyon Review, and they have been included in the Pushcart and Best American Poetry anthologies. A former park ranger, she now teaches at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
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Read an Excerpt

The Body Rising

I'd like to do something that would be the opposite of skydiving. Instead of falling I would rise up and up guess I'm talking about flying . . .


Think about the girl in her red bikini,
how she rides the air behind the speedboat.
So what if her chest is leashed to a kite-forget the kite.
Think of county-fair daredevils careering in rickety turrets, their motorbikes riding the wall at centrifugal speeds. So what if you paid a dollar admission-forget the dollar,
forget whatever you admitted. Think of all the times you didn't have to pay to see gravity break:
the circus clown cannon-balled into the sky and Eva Braun zeppelined into the sky and the astronauts, especially the astronauts who never came down when they were turned to vapor.
How to find fault in anything that includes the body rising:
the raft spilling its paddlers, who disappear so theatrically before they surface in the river's twisted sheets; the WWII bomber that crashes into the mountain and stays buried, whose airmen keep floating up after years in the glacier, limb by perfect limb;

the pillar of smoke rising from the funeral home run by your neighbors, the monosyllabic Mills & Burns. For months you've been typing in a second-story room across the street, oblivious to what the stories mean-the fact you sit on nothing more than air, you inhabit the air just over the oldest bank vault in town, all day you steep in the waft of silver dollars.
Yet it's not the floor that's important,
not the raft of flowered carpet you think holds everything up; it's not the kite but the body, not the river but the body, not the rocket but the body that understands its elements so well it can revert to them in a blink.
And maybe we serve the body most faithfully when we abandon it, the way these dancers
(who enter now by way of the TVs local access channel)
allow themselves to rise up on each other's wings.
But these aren't dancers really: they don't have wings.
just death metal punks, speed slammers and moshers whose choreography's zoned against unbruised escape.
The bass is a wooden shoe clogging the deepest canal in your car, and teenage boys have started to launch themselves like supermans soaring over the crowd of burnished heads.
You're thinking about what odds these boys risk getting crushed. But look what happens next:
they don't get crushed. Instead they turn weightless and waterlogged, bullied and buoyed like ghosts who can't drown because they have no boats.
Vaults of pliant and complete surrender, rising as each body passes through the pairs of upraised hands.

Self-Portrait in Two Ages

Who is this girl, standing close to the roadway,
flinching in the hard-boiling wake of these trucks?
Okay, it's me-but let's not get nostalgic,
not make this another carousel in Themepark Gone.
Because this girl doesn't want to be me, doesn't want to be anyone. Even now I carn't make her take on the ghostware of that first-person past.
What she wants is to ride like a Jonah in strange cars
-east, west, it doesn't matter. She wants the same river again and again and not stepped in twice. I know: Heraclitus. Bur don't expect me to tell her what she wants is that old,
when she thinks it's something that she just invented.
And telling would scold her, like calling her honey,
like the woman who clucks into a chalk-white cup when she looks outside and sees the girl there-
thumb out, head down, hair gone under a watch cap.
Here: where the highway tilts onto concrete stalks across from a steamed diner window. Through which I'm peering as I cluck into my chalk-white cup.
Even from this distance, I'd know anywhere my own monkey face, and the city,
there in the arcadia of North American French,
where when a man pulls his car from the current of traffic she'll get in and let his language surge

between them like another river. She's a boat without oars, without even a name, and the man steers her into the murky shallows with a word that might be peau (skin) or peur (fear) or peut-
skin what he could and could not do. When his hand slides where her jacket buttons leave a space like a trough between waves, she'll close her eyes and say nothing. The river changes but the hand is always the same, the car moving, or stopped,
as when the hand doesn't belong to a stranger.
She can't tell if she likes it. It's just a hand.
And the woman-who watched her get into the car-
memorizes the license plate, then forgets. It's not him,
after all, that the girl's afraid of But of living past him, passing into the someday when she-gone matronly, stern-will have her own self to answer to.

Women Who Sleep on Stones

Women who sleep on stones are like brick houses that squat alone in cornfields.
They look weatherworn, solid, dusty,
torn screens sloughing from the window frames.
But at dusk a second-story light is always burning.

Used to be I loved nothing more than spreading my blanket on high granite ledges that collect good water in their hollows.
Stars came close without the trees staring and rustling like damp underthings.

But doesn't the body foil what it loves best?
Now my hips creak and their blades are tender.
I can't rest on my back for fear of exposing my gut to night creatures who might come along and rip it open with a beak or hoof

And if I sleep on my belly, pinning it down,
my breasts start puling like baby pigs trapped under their slab of torpid mother.
Dark passes as I shift from side to side to side,
the blood pooling just above the bone.

Women who sleep on stones don't sleep.
They see the stars moving, the sunrise, the gnats rising like a hairnet lifted from a waitress's head.
The next day they're sore all over and glad for the ache: that's how stubborn they are.

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Table of Contents

The Sweaters 3
Landfill 5
The News (A Manifesto) 7
Dangerous Life 9
First Job/Seventeen 11
The Northside at Seven 13
The Revelation 15
How Western Underwear Came to Japan 19
Skin 20
The Body Mutinies 22
Kilned 23
On Belay 25
Thinking about Illness 27
Women Who Sleep on Stones 28
Limits 30
"What One Loves Are Things That Fade" 35
Annunciation at a Foreign Film 37
Tripe 39
Compulsory Travel 41
The Roots of Pessimism 43
Monorail 45
Needles 47
Cairn for Future Travel 51
The Body Rising 52
Beige Trash 57
Foley 60
Trees 65
Air Guitar 67
Self-Portrait in Two Ages 70
Apollo 72
The Golden Lotus 75
Pomegranate 77
Long Time Too Long 80
Short Course in Semiotics 81
For Edward Hopper, from the Floor 84
For I Have Taught the Japanese 86
Pigeons 88
The Sportsmen's Guide 91
Serotonin 93
Lament in Good Weather 96
Brief Life Among the Immortals 97
Palimpsest 99
A Readymade 102
Abandon 104
Tilapia 108
In Light of the Absent Constant 111
The Sutro Baths 113
In the Long Shadow of Pierre de Fermat 117
The Oldest Map with the Name America 119
La Vie en Rose 127
Home 128
The Salmon Underneath the City 133
The Ghost Shirt 135
Notes 143
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