July 2007

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

I've Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature by Lucia Perillo

From the very first line of I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature it is clear that Lucia Perillo is a poet. Her prose is lyrical, sharp and rich with unusual and striking imagery and biting lines, whether she’s writing about seagulls, Emily Dickinson, or her desperate trials of alternative treatments for multiple sclerosis.

Perillo, the author of four award-winning books of poetry, was a backcountry ranger before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her 30s. Since then, the disease has made her “ever more physically compromised,” which requires her to redefine her concept of wilderness so she can still experience wilderness despite being unable to walk.

Thus I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing opens with Perillo’s observations of that most reviled and overlooked bird: the seagull. As Perillo learns to see seagulls, so does the reader. Wilderness can be found in unexpected places, even odd-smelling, trash-ridden, muddy docks. While seagulls aren’t as good for stories as eagles, they have their own appeal.
                       
Equally compelling is the section about bat-watching and Perillo’s portrayal of bat enthusiasts bursting with information but not entirely comfortable sharing it with a lay audience, as if they like being part of a secret club of bat knowledge.

Interspersed with musings on natural history are Perillo’s thoughts on poetry, literature, multiple sclerosis, and her life before her illness, ranging from humorous to poignant, but never sentimental. The book does not read like a collection of essays so much as a peek into Perillo’s diary -- or field notebook -- albeit a flowing, elegantly written diary. Scenes and thoughts are loosely arranged by topic, but not heavily structured.

In some ways, the book might have had more impact with a more formal structure, but the seemingly raw glimpse into Perillo’s mind is compelling in itself, as are Perillo’s thoughts on literature ranging from ancient Greek poets to her own contemporaries. The literary comments are interspersed throughout the book. It is clearly natural for Perillo to draw parallels from her experiences to her reading, and this habit lends a coherent thread to the collection.

The eclectic nature of the book means there is at least a little bit here for everyone, from nature lover to poetry enthusiast. I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing is also an intense personal account of living with a life-altering disease, but not solely about multiple sclerosis. But the breadth of topics may also put off some readers who prefer a more focused read.

I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing is a bit like the literary equivalent of a Victorian cabinet museum: a loosely categorized collection of thoughts and images, a bit overwhelming at first, but full of hidden treasures for devoted readers to find and make their own. But it’s not for everyone -- it is a book that requires active reading and provokes thought. It cannot be consumed passively. Vultures encourages us to see the common and invisible through new eyes.

I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature by Lucia Perillo
Trinity University Press
ISBN: 1595340319
256 Pages