The Great Poem Series: Lucia Perillo’s “Samara”

Lucia Perillo’s “Samara” is a celebration of small and simple beauty. Perillo died at 58 in 2016, shortly after this poem appeared in the 2012 edition of The Best American Poetry. She died from complications of multiple sclerosis, a disease which inspired much of her poetry. Perhaps the awareness that her life might soon come to an end allowed her to appreciate something like samara, the winged seeds which fall from trees.

The poem has six parts, each with a different focus. It begins with Perillo noticing the seeds floating outside her window. Her amazement is tainted slightly by confusion, and perhaps a little bit of resentment. She finds it “hard to believe the earth-engine capable of such invention,/that the process of mutation and dispersal/will not only formulate the right equations//but that when they finally arrive they’ll be so/…giddy?” Mutation has not worked in her own favor, but still she marvels at the beauty of the seeds with childlike wonder, comparing them to “yellow butterflies.” Referring to the world as “the earth-engine” and nature as its “invention” portrays the natural world as mechanical, which doesn’t make it any less wondrous, but perhaps a little bit colder. This perception accounts for her shock that the samara is “giddy,” because it seems impossible that happiness could be the result of indifferent creation.

Yet in the next part, Perillo writes that “somewhere Darwin speculates that happiness/should be the outcome of his theory,” making the giddy samara the perfect result of evolution. But part of what makes “Samara” a great poem is the contradictions Perillo confronts so blatantly, and in the next sentence she acknowledges the importance of vigilance more so than happiness; the importance of “imagining the lion’s tooth inside your neck already,//for you to have your best chance of outrunning the lion//on the arrival of the lion.” The first two sections both finish with an arrival — of the samara and the lion, respectively. The former is life, the latter death. But Perillo refuses to end the poem here, instead drawing a winding path for her reader to follow. The next sections ramble, but not in a way that feels sloppy or unfocused. Her words are like the seeds, drifting without an obvious direction but still managing to land where they can take root and grow into something beautiful.

The third section is perhaps the least relevant, but it may also be my favorite. Perillo talks about the Buddhist idea of samsara, only one letter off from samara. Samsara means “the wheel of birth and misery and death,” which Perillo describes as “an overzealous bit of whittlework,” insisting upon her belief in something more than just misery in between birth and death. In a parenthetical aside, though, she reveals that the idea of samsara “feels about right to me.” And then comes what might be my favorite line in the whole thing: “oh shut up, Lucia. The rule is: you can’t nullify the world/in the middle of your singing.” This bit, wrapped up in parentheses as if to avoid our notice, makes the poem intensely personal. It creates conflict. It means that I don’t quite believe that Perillo quite believes in the beauty of the samara, but I believe that she is trying to. She won’t allow herself to deny the world’s beauty in the same breath as celebrating it, but that’s her instinct. Maybe she’ll wait until later to nullify the world, then. Or maybe she won’t.

In the next section, Perillo suddenly shifts focus away from herself and towards “roboseed.” At first I assumed this was a piece of fiction added to make a point, but turns out there really is a RoboSeed Nano: a mini monocopter, modelled after the samara seed. This reality strikes me both as impressive and slightly disturbing. Perhaps Perillo has rubbed off on me: she says roboseed “is not a sorrow” but then goes on to say “I said ‘sorrow’ for the fear that in the future all the beauties/will be replaced by replicas that have more glare and blare and bling.” She contradicts herself about whether or not roboseed is a sorrow, but ignores the contradiction to decide that it is. She fears that “there’ll be no blight/on any of the cherished encapsulations//when the blight was what we loved.” This is, of course, entirely cliche. But Perillo is self-aware about this, using to her advantage rather than to her detriment. She has subtly hinted to the reader any doubts she may have, and somehow this prevents me from rolling my eyes at her declaration. It only feels like one step closer to understanding. 

The next two sections return to the samara itself. The fifth examines their beauty more completely and honestly. Perillo’s not nullifying the world in admitting that the fallen seeds have “grown brown and brittle.” She’s simply observing the world, and still marveling at it, though with more complication. She writes “oh how I’ve underestimated the persistence of the lace in their one wing.” Lace is delicate, and a single wing should seem unbalanced, but still the seed is persistent. Samara is not only beautiful, but powerful even against the odds.

In the last section, Perillo returns to the wheel of birth and death, now beginning at the opposite end. As a wheel turns, it becomes a cycle, every part connected to every other part in a circle and not a line. There’s misery between birth and death but nothing between death and birth, so now Perillo finds herself at the intersection of the two. She asks “please scatter my ashes under a maple tree” so that “some small molecule of me… is drawn up in the phloem” and be “transformed now into a seed with a wing.” So that she may float, “whirling” to the ground, and grow into a tree. So that she may be born again, and leave open the possibility of something more than misery. 

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