Apr 22, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Nicole Santalucia's Driving Yourself to Jail in July

Driving Yourself to Jail in July
Dead Bison Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-615-91987-4

We’ve Earned These Little Flashes of Light Together

            Binghamton University has been a home to many exceptional poets: Ruth Stone, Milton Kessler, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Joe Weil, Liz Rosenberg, and Leslie Heywood have all taught here. Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Tony Medina, Yehoshua November, and many others, have studied here. The aesthetic of this varied group privileges lyric narrative poems grounded in reflections on place and memory with an allegiance to love and brokenness.  Nicole Santalucia’s debut chapbook situates her firmly within this tradition.  Driving Yourself to Jail in July consists of twenty eight lyric narrative poems. Each poem inflects honesty with surreal humor.  The concluding stanza of “Genealogy” provides an emblematic example of such inflection:Every time I enter a public bathroom I wonder what it would/ have been like to gouge my eyes out and serve them like/ Italian grapes to the children our grandparents would have had/ if they married someone else.”  Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia, provides the final image in a poem that meditates on the complicated connections between ancestry, love, fear, and identity.  The fact that this meditation takes place in a public bathroom underscores the poet’s allegiance to the ordinary, her sense that no matter how labyrinthine or lofty the subject of a poem, the mundane will continue to dry gulch us; Like Walt Whitman, Santalucia’s central line could be “I feel my body shall decay.”  Her poems pay equal tribute to the journeywork of the stars, a jailhouse cannoli machine, a crack house, and the kids on the south side who are born again as they crawl through a hole in the fence.    
            The poems in this collection are spoken in a narrative voice that is funny, yet real, tough, yet gentle, blunt, yet pointedly bright. An excellent example of this voice at work runs through the poem “Bitches on the Roof.”  The poem, in its entirety, reads:
            I love the bitch, said the guy with no teeth.
            Then, he took a swig from his can of beer,
            climbed back up the ladder onto the roof,
            and started hammering.  

            You can’t live with that bitch anymore,
            said the other guy with a bigger tool belt and two teeth.
            The bitch won’t even cook, said no-teeth man.  

            I sat quietly on my porch listening to these men bitch
            as they fixed the neighbor’s house. I secretly wished their
            bitch-asses would fall off the roof, and I wanted to tell them
            to stop bitching, to take off their bitch costume and strap on
            a real cock.  

            It was late May and the men kept coming to work on the house.
            Sometimes they would wake me up. They slurped their beer and bitched
            about their baby mommas. I started dreaming about tool belts and memorizing
            their conversations as they hammered each shingle.  

            Now, it is June and I’m wearing my own tool belt and sitting on the porch.
            Every once in a while I look next door
            as if to agree with the men who re-roofed the house last month
            and I want to climb on the roof and scream,
            I love the bitch.

This poem works because it is not merely a reflection of an experience, but it is rather a completely contained experience in and of itself.  Santalucia has accomplished a rare feat in contemporary poetry: she’s reanimated the love poem, sincerely and without sentimentality. She’s suddenly turned the phrase “I love the bitch” into a line from an epithalamion. She’s deflated misogyny. She’s questioned gender norms. She’s brought us to the rooftop with her speaker so that we can scream our love along with hers.
            “Bitches on the Roof” also explores how language moors us into place and might unmoor us if we allow it. Many of the poems in this collection consider the slippery proposition that underwrites all utterance. In “Ode to Leroy Street,” Santalucia says:
            Leroy drives the bus that stops 
            on the corner where the woman wearing hot 
            pink sweatpants drops quarters on the sidewalk;
            her name is Leroy too.

            Another guy named Leroy
            stands outside of the liquor store
            at 7:55 am. 

            I think my name should be Leroy
            because every time I look out my window
            busses pass by and yellow electric letters
            flash “Leroy Street” “Leroy Street.”
            At the stop light
            next to the liquor store
            next to hot-pink-sweatpants-Leroy
            bending at the knees 

            there are kids sitting with their backs 
            facing the street.
            I can’t hear what they are saying
            from over here on the second floor;
            I imagine them whispering
            My daddy’s name is Leroy
            and he’ll beat you up.

Nietzsche said “what labels me, negates me.” This poem articulates a fear of fixity, of definitions imposed from outside that threaten to overwhelm individuality and freedom.  However, the fear couches itself in comedy, the repetition of the word “Leroy” reiterating the imagined whispers of the children at the end of the poem. At the same time, this poem celebrates an actual place (Leroy Street is the actual street the poet lives on).  In that respect, this poem serves as an Ars Poetica in the collection, focusing as it does on the quirky ways that place shapes a person, a poet, and a poem. 
            In a broader sense, the poem “America, Let’s Pretend Your Name is George” presses issues of national identity. This is the only prose poem in the collection and it reads: 
Dear George,
There are lesbians wearing their grandmother’s wedding dresses. George, why do I want to kiss
your belly? This desire feels incestuous. George, I’m listening to Christmas music in July and
frying your chicken. I’m hungry, standing in the banana aisle at the grocery store, pretending to
pick up the lemons that fell so I can get a better look at my teacher’s legs; she shops here too.
George, of course I am going to be a poet. I drank all your beer before I turned nine. George,
your kids smell like mustard and hotdogs. Please keep them on a leash. George, there is no more
room for any more elephants. George, when I find out I am pregnant, we’ll celebrate, and we’ll
find a cure for your allergies. George, I went to the doctor and he said the glaciers are melting in
Juno, Alaska, and I’m worried we may be stuck here forever, where people are dying. George, I
will cover you in plastic and get Walt Whitman to let us on his ferry. George, get out of bed, all
of this is happening and I just want to be left alone. George, your leather belt is too tight and
your ass looks sexy in those pants. George, I’ve inherited my grandfather’s shotguns, thanks to
Nicole Santalucia would agree with Langston Hughes that “America was never America to me.” This poem is in dialogue with famous poems about America by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Terrance Hayes, but none of those poets had the audacity to rename the nation. Certainly, this epistolary prose poem carries on a close conversation with Jennifer L. Knox’s great “Hot Ass Poem,” a poem that similarly critiques the way that everyday discourse circumscribes our ability to read and make meaning. 
            The meaning made by this collection as a whole hinges on a worldview that celebrates the grit and vibrancy of the poet’s surroundings. The poets’ love for family, for friends, and for the community that shaped her comes through in every line. The images shock in the best kind of way. No other contemporary poet has lines as unforgettable as these from “Breaking News”: “The first time you kissed the tip of a sawed off shotgun/ god’s tongue wrapped around your waist and pulled you/ out of your skin—a puddle of beer on the floor instead of blood.” No other contemporary poet has lines as surprising as these from “Blue Balls”: “There’s an old man inside of me who wants to scratch his balls./ I feel this itch every morning when I roll over in bed/ and tell my wife that I love her.” This collection makes me remember why I love poetry; I read poetry not because it is beautiful, but because the world is like the weather is in Johnson City, New York, when the sky’s the color of steel wool left in the kitchen sink: grim, cold, and beautiful.
            Nicole Santalucia’s chapbook reminds me of that passage I love in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck talks about eating his food all mixed together. In Driving Yourself to Jail in July nothing gets compartmentalized; everything’s mixed together; the ridiculous and the sublime are served up on the same plate.  Reading these poems I feel like a guy waiting for wonton soup in a queue of ghosts at a Chinese joint on Riverside Drive: hungry, ethereal, and in good company.  Santalucia leads us through the dirty streets of her hometown and guides us through the backwaters of empire. She brings us into the home she’s built with her wife, Deanna. She honors her parents, her family, her friends, and the variegated neighbors that make a hometown both forever recognizable and forever foreign. She leads us to her brother’s prison yard, past her own mistakes, and she offers us the firefly knowledge that we’ve earned these little flashes of light together.  

Reviewer Bio:

Dante Di Stefano is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. His poetry and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's ChronicleShenandoah, The Southern California Review, Brilliant CornersThe Hollins CriticBayou MagazineThe Grove Review, Gris-Gris, and elsewhere. He has won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and the Academy of American Poets College Prize. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Contemporary poets whose work he admires include: Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, Jason Shinder, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Terrance Hayes. 


Apr 18, 2014

Spring Updates

Our spring reading period is now CLOSED, and our editors here at Harpur Palate are working hard to get through the mountain of submissions we received. Thank you to everyone who trusted us to read your work. The editors should have an answer to you within the next two weeks.

Spring is a big time for literary events in our area - see below for conferences and readings galore!

Saturday, April 19: Bianca Stone and Ben Pease to read at the Belmar Pub, 7 pm

This event has been arranged by our intern Elizabeth and we look forward to hearing from both Bianca and Ben.

Thursday, April 24: Nicole Santalucia and Abby Murray to read at RiverRead Books, 6:30 pm

Both Nicole and Abby are former poetry editors for Harpur Palate, and we congratulate Nicole on her chapbook Driving Yourself to Jail in July winning the 2013 Ruby Irene Prize with Arcadia Magazine. You can see more information about the reading here, and can keep a lookout for a forthcoming review of Nicole's chapbook on our blog. You can buy Driving Yourself to Jail in July here!

Friday, April 25: Binghamton Poetry Project Final Reading at Binghamton University, 6 pm

Come hear poets from the area share the work they've written in various workshops from the Binghamton Poetry Project this spring. This final reading takes place in Binghamton University's Science I Room 149. You can learn more about what the Poetry Project does here

Saturday, April 26: Shifting Tides, Anxious Borders, a graduate conference on transnational literature at the Downtown Center starting at 10:30 am

This conference is put on by graduate students at Binghamton University and will take place at the Downtown Center in Binghamton. Like STAB on Facebook to see what they're all about.

Saturday, May 3: Spring Writes at Ithaca's Argos Inn, 6 pm

Spring Writes has so many wonderful literacy events happening, and Harpur Palate editors will be at the literary journals reading that Saturday evening, reading our favorite pieces from former contributors. Learn more about the many events of Spring Writes here.

We will continually update with more information. 
Thanks again and stay tuned!
(Submissions reopen Fall 2014)

Apr 11, 2014

Only Five Days Left!

General and contest submissions close on 4/15/14. Go to our Submittable for details!

Apr 9, 2014

Harpur Palate Presents Bianca Stone and Ben Pease Poetry Reading

Harpur Palate is pleased to present a poetry reading featuring Bianca Stone and Ben Pease. The reading is on April 19th from 7-9pm at the Belmar Pub, located at 95 Main Street. We hope to see you there!

One Week Remains

Less than one week remains to submit original fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry to Harpur Palate. Here's a handy link to our Submittable for all your submission needs and guidelines.

Apr 1, 2014

Amy Pence Reviews Kate Northrop's Clean

Kate Northrop, 
Persea Books, 2011

 ISBN-13: 978-0892553679

Swept Clean  

          If you’re like me, certain passages in books may draw you back to them.  Why?  Because one moment speaks to you, almost in whispers, of the numinous.  For me, it is the middle passage in To the Lighthouse, when the Ramsays’ summer home is in decline—rolling lights stretch across the house, and as the chapter names it, “time passes.”  The yawning existence of things and the simultaneous and sudden expiration of the human evoke a contrary longing for stasis and the acknowledgement of decay’s supreme beauty.  No contemporary poet can better capture living in that mysterious half-life than Kate Northrop.  Like reading Virginia Woolf, when you enter a Kate Northrop book, you are in an in-between space, where reality and perception only fleetingly co-exist.
                Her third collection, Clean, released by Persea Books (2011), takes us to the wind-swept, spare and evocative American landscapes named in the title “Winter Prairie”:
                …One knows

                A window:  it gives everything away,
                Nothing back.  One knows

                the TV light scattered through,
                Blue, cold, though not as blue, not as cold

                As the prairie, the winter prairie, spare
                And so clean it becomes like this

                A struck note, a shape
                Cut from the world yet held in the world

                like staring hard into a grave.
                I speak to you; clearly someone else speaks.

                Often, the speaker is limning the space of the prairie, alone in a car—driving not just through it, but into it.  The surprise at the end of “Winter Prairie” is not unusual: in Northrop’s world, these slight shifts of perception are mysterious and vibrate with the recognition of the marvelous in the quotidian. “Night Drive,” like many of the poems in this collection, moves slyly, gathering energy and power:
                Each turn appears
                As a figure in a dream
                Sure, demanding:
                Look, fields are rising—
                And they are, the bright
                Snow-stripped fields,

                Like a shroud
                Or a female voice
                You never loved me

                And that’s true…
                Like the wrapped skull in the middle passage of To the Lighthouse, in Clean, it is the human that makes its scant appearance, and then disappears or is swallowed by the persistence of time and space.
                The book shifts with Northrop’s long poem sequence “Detail,” when the human takes precedence.  Here, Northrop recalls the shifting perspectives in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  The speaker, just as complex and often contrary as Mrs. Dalloway, ruminates on the nature of lies, where she might have left her sunglasses, near and distant memories, as well as her unique peccadilloes:
                                Loved:  pulling moss from the seams
                                Between bricks; Jell-O, how when touched
                                With a spoon, it resists

                                Hated:  a too-severe part
                                In someone’s hair, visible scalp;
                                The skin formed on house paint;

                                White condiments

                                (Miracle whip, tartar sauce, mayonnaise)

                A subtle humor permeates the poem, and the collection’s title takes on a meaning beyond barren landscapes, the ideally pristine houses, or the “squeak/ Of a paper towel as you clean/ A streak from the glass.”  The book is about “coming clean”—to look at the self with a brutal honesty even when it comes to writing poetry:

                                You know not everything always has to be life or death

                                                                Still, the poems shouldn’t be precious

                                                                Like posing for yourself in a mirror
                                                                To see if you look alright

                The collection ends with “Delphinium,” a poem that enfolds the inwardness of the flower— “They never will mirror you/ Only absorb you”—with the inwardness of the speaker.  Throughout, Northrop demonstrates that material can spark states of being and how an unsparing vision can recall us to these temporal mysteries.

Reviewer Bio:

Amy Pence (www.amypence.com) is the author of the poetry collections Armor, Amour  (Ninebark Press) and The Decadent Lovely (Main Street Rag).  Her non-fiction (essays, interviews and reviews) have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Poets & WritersColorado Review, and The Rumpus.  She lives in Carrollton, Georgia and teaches in Atlanta.