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.