Because I Did Not Die
By Nicole Santalucia
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
The Cannoli Machine at the Brooklyn Detention Center, the opening poem in Nicole Santalucia’s Because I Did Not Die, sets the themes—family, Italian American heritage, and addiction—that are a thread throughout the book. Santalucia’s latest work is bold in its subject matter, and shows a willingness to go into the cave and tackle past demons. The poems are unflinching in their handling of the personal, something fewer and fewer contemporary poets are doing in the decades following the height of the confessional movement that saw the ascension of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell.
Several of Santalucia’s poems deal with parents realizing that their children are addicts. The opening poem, for instance, finds the speaker’s dad in the Brooklyn Detention Center, trying to come to terms with the fact that his son is jailed. “This is the first time I saw my father afraid,” the speaker confesses. And yet, the only comfort he finds is the chance to stand in line at the cannoli machine with all of the other fathers. The Italian dessert, at least, is something familiar and comforting.
Throughout much of the book, the brother is a ghost, floating in and out of the family’s life, recalled through memories that the speaker has seen through glimpses. In the poem Golfing, for instance, the sport is used as a metaphor to refer to the brother. The speaker recounts running into the woods and imagining her brother’s ghost teeing off: “I never thought he’d be strong enough/to swing back at life.” The poem is also interesting because it shows the speaker adopting some masculine characteristics, perhaps learned from her brother and dad. The opening lines feature her swinging, grunting, and throwing the nine iron into the sand pit, traits usually associated with men. The slight gender-bending, which occurs in other poems, too, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.
The book also addresses a second or third generation Italian American’s attempts to better understand her heritage. Someday I Will Learn Italian recounts watching a grandparent learning over the stove, preparing pasta. There is a distancing between the grandparent and the children, and not only because of language barriers. Throughout the memory recounted in the first stanza, the children always face the grandparent’s back. After the poem digs into the speaker’s past, which includes stealing wine bottles at the grandparent’s funeral, the poem concludes by connecting the past with the present. The speaker sees aspects of the older generation in herself, including some typical Italian traits, such as talking with her hands.
Other poems shift between New York City and Binghamton, or Johnson City in upstate New York. The poems about those scrappy, often forgotten New York locations could be a snapshot of a lot of American rust belt towns, in that they capture the poverty and the sheer struggle to survive. The conclusion of the book’s final poem, Johnson City, reads:
There are blank toe tags and broken chairs
for sale on front lawns in this town.
This is Johnson City.
Old ladies sweep their porches
then the sidewalks
The K Mart has bedbugs
the people don’t know why they have syphilis
They wait for five o’clock in this town
they stand in traffic and wait for a miracle
Yet, this book has plenty of optimism, including stories of the speaker and her family surviving. Other poems celebrate gay marriage and the speaker’s relationship to her wife. Indeed, there are plenty of miracles in Because I Did Not Die, and Santalucia’s willingness to spill her guts should be commended.
Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing) and the full-length collection All That Remains (Unbound Content). His third book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, is forthcoming from NYQ Books. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Blue Collar Review, and other publications. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. He teaches at Lackawanna College.