Review of An Easy Place/To Die by Vincent A. Cellucci.
CityLit Press, 2011.
Alternating between an expansive, projective verse and frustrating obscurantism, often within a single poem, Vincent Cellucci's debut collection is a kind of bricolage monument to New Orleans, constructed with whatever is at hand: images, facts, mini-flights of rhetoric, and snippets of overheard speech are all juxtaposed, often without the kind of connective logic (narrative, speculative, or otherwise) that might make these fragments cohere. When this method works best, the collection's strongest work bounds outward by its music and sturdy, open-field arrangements into the city at large, combing its errors and wrecks for usable materials, recombining them in illuminating ways. The poems at times recall Pound, who in a draft of Canto I wonders if "the modern world / Needs such a ragbag to stuff all its thoughts in."
When his curation and ragpicking are at their most discriminating, Cellucci's materials can transmit brief, powerful truths. These textual transmissions begin in one place, are continued in multiple others, and finish yet elsewhere, if at all; this deliberate disconnection and intermittent reflexive allusion is the primary method by which the collection's “arc” is formed. White azaleas plucked from a dive bar, hell-hole fever dream (“Women Wishing Wells and Whitman”) are transfigured and later offered to the author's daughter as as series of tender aphorisms (“White Azaleas, or Axioms for My Daughter”). New Orleans' panoply of revolting sofas and mattresses runs throughout, from the above-mentioned bar to the destroyed apartment of a family friend, hinting beyond these mere iterations at a democratic, richly textured rot. In the collection's finest poems, Cellucci's multifaceted presentation unites in a system of meaning, getting past the surface image, entering the city's deeper registers.
in this storm the depth line reaches his calf
where the big muscle bows to bone
gifts he unwraps
or how deep he's fallen
into his vocation
his palms coffin more than calluses
his toes embalm their tread on wet skin soles
before the flowers and tombstone there are some weeds
Once in awhile flowers
the dark wind
Here, the ditchdigger serves as a kind of vortex within the collection's larger field, retrieving prior materials (bone, casket, flowers) from a dormant state and activating them; as a result of their incorporation into the image, these things are reborn—torn from their previous contexts and viewed anew as a result of the process of juxtaposition effected by the image. In this way the ditchdigger emerges flesh and bone from the book in a way few of its other humans do. We like the idea of him out there, knee-deep among that stuff, renovating the earth for us, at night.
Elsewhere, however—particularly when the poet's ear fails him, or his neologisms verge on bad puns—it is unclear if Cellucci's persistent paratactic rehearsals are intended to enable or replace intellection, the work of poetic rigor. Too often we find ourselves skating along a surface of non sequiturs, sonics, and typographic variation (these poems all look fantastic), wondering what is at stake in a poem like “responsorial” (“cassock of caskets/no casus belli//stegosaurus' dwellings/blues fast”), “finish lines” (“you blasted bombero/licking strawberry jam off a machete/straining mermaid juz/from your mustache”), or myriad others. In many poems the originating concept or momentum quickly dissipates, and we get a sense that what is most important to the author is process itself. This may be the book's main weakness. Throughout much of An Easy Place/To Die process is more real, more felt and important, than the things it relates.
From “Even heaven is blue”:
since world disposed of you
pitcher of sun sweet tea
minnows raised us right
don't know how I've given up
how I hold a door open
like a gentlegun
like salt on fried
As Joseph Frank notes, this emphasis on discontinuity is fundamental to a poetry of spatial form, in which “syntactical sequence is given up for a structure depending on the perception of relationships between disconnected word groups.” To be properly read, Cellucci's collection must be internally related to itself, perceived simultaneously. As such, time seems absent or at least collapsed throughout, with everything occurring on the same temporal plane; meaning, here, rarely depends on temporal relation or progression. New Orleans comes off as ahistorical and oddly depeopled, or populated more by ambiguous and fungible formal units, abstracted from any humanizing narrative more traditional representation might impart.
If, due to their openness and indeterminacy, the poems in this promising debut do not guarantee the kind of historically, culturally “meaningful” reading of New Orleans that has proliferated in the years since Katrina, the images assembled therein do ensure some kind of proximity to concrete fact—the stuff of the place—and in this way are at least as truthful as any conventional history. As readers, we engage the text in the same semi-aleatory way that the flaneur does the city. We can feel, if not enter, its private, shadow histories.
Reviewed by James Capozzi
James Capozzi is an Assistant Professor at Virginia State University and the newest member of NOLA DIASPORA's editorial team. He is starting student journal, VIRGINIA NORMAL.