A Review by Dante Di Stefano
Because I Did Not Die
By Nicole Santalucia
Bordighera Press ($14.00)
By Nicole Santalucia
Bordighera Press ($14.00)
Nicole Santalucia’s debut poetry collection, Because I Did Not Die, splits its affinities between Manhattan and upstate New York. While either soaring over the Brooklyn Detention Center, where her brother is locked in a jail cell, or hoofing it over the uneven sidewalks of Seminary Avenue in Binghamton, New York, Santalucia’s poems take what the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, called “a parochial view” of their subject matter; Santalucia never doubts the social and artistic validity of the mundane—these poems bare knuckle the present and donnybrook the past. The poems in Because I Did Not Die chronicle addiction and recovery, married life and sexuality, small town and big city living, and the Tolstoyan discontents unique to all unhappy families; more importantly, these poems take for their main subject the processes by which we mythologize and dramatize the places we call home, in order to construct a narrative of who we are and where we are going. With a playfulness that helps to mitigate any grimness in subject matter, Santalucia fuses the ordinary with the airy and surreal. For Santalucia, home is the birthplace of Rod Serling and IBM, a place where she might dream of gypsy fairies floating in mason jars on her nightstand, a place where gardens full of tomato plants contaminated by factory run-off still line the backyards of houses in the hills, and a place where, when she rides the Ferris wheel at the field days, she can see a younger version of herself committing a drug deal behind the local supermarket.
The opening lines of the title poem, “Because I Did Not Die,” establish the formal and thematic concerns that run throughout the collection. The poem begins:
Because I did not die
from burning my fingers
on a glass crack pipe,
the scars on my fingertips throb
when I wash the dishes
or shovel the sidewalk
for my neighbor.
These lines evoke the need to serve others and to remember; those two desires braid together and provide the impetus for most of the poems in this book. However, Santalucia keenly acknowledges the limitations imposed by any act of remembrance. In the poem “It Takes a Lot of Beer to Survive,” Santalucia offers: “I am waiting for the day/ we run out of gasoline/ and have to push our memories/ with our fat bodies.” These lines postulate memory as possibly burdensome, corporeal, ridiculous, crippling, imbued with the potential to unhouse us, and vested with inertia.
Santalucia’s work betrays the influence of her mentors; her poems combine the compressed and sophisticated lyricism of David Lehman with the aria-like narrative pulse of Maria Mazziotti Gillan. The poems in Because I Did Not Die are at their best when their imagistic poniards quickly dart through a story and deflate it as, for instance, when the poet describes bottles holding homemade wine as “blue glass kisses.” At times, the crusty dreamlike specificity of her poetry recalls Charles Simic, as when she writes: “I must have grown up under a pigeon’s wing/ and lived in the clock in Grand Central Station.” Santalucia’s work surprises most when it departs from the straightforward narrative mode in favor of a more fractured lyrical approach. “The Order of Creation,” a poem that takes the less direct approach, reads in full:
my brother punched my father in the face
but not in the face with his fist
in his head with a baseball bat
in his shin with a cleat
on his arm with a stick
my brother whaled my mother
in the head with his knuckles they broke
he punched so hard he passed out
and didn’t wake up
I didn’t wake up either
we planned to meet
under the bed
where the cat hid when it rained
where we found the dog dead
This is the order of creation: a rain of blows and broken bones, the disjointed song that tells the story of how a family might be unmade and made whole. Longing, loss, love: this is the only story that any poet has to tell. This is how one goes about dismantling the miracles within walking distance. This is how what’s been dismantled might be remade. This how regular-sized words might be fashioned into psalms.
Dante Di Stefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Thayer Fellowship in the Arts, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, The Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, The Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, The Bea Gonzalez Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He works as a high school English teacher in Endicott, New York.