Nicole Santalucia
The Book of Dirt
NYQ Books

Reviewer: Brian Fanelli

While Pennsylvania has traditionally voted for Democratic presidents, including Bill Clinton twice and Barack Obama twice, the state flipped in 2016, and Trump won it by a slim margin. Though PA contains Philly and Pittsburgh, as well as several mid-tier, working-class cities like Scranton and Harrisburg that generally vote blue, it also contains deep red counties, especially in the central part of the state where Trump bumper stickers and Confederate flags are not uncommon. It’s these counties that caused Democratic strategist James Carville to comment that PA is Paoli (a Philly suburb) and Penn Hills (Pittsburgh suburb) with Alabama in between. High voter turnout in PA’s red counties helped to elect Trump. These conservative towns are the backdrop of Nicole Santalucia’s latest collection of poems, The Book of Dirt, which depicts life for a queer woman in rural Pennsylvania. These poems are offered via a brave, honest, and bold speaker, written from the margins during a time when we need such voices.

In the opening poem “You Have Now Begun Reading The Book of Dirt,” Santalucia establishes a defiant tone mixed with a dash of surrealism. In one line, she states, “This is the book where a gay girl is another closet,” before proceeding, “Where the doorknobs fall off and the queer goes for a walk / on a rainbow leash. I mosey from dream to dirt to dream / and see the jar of hallelujahs glowing on my nightstand.” The poem blends uncanny images with a statement about survival, offered directly, as with the phrase “We survive,” and more viscerally with a line such as “Our root systems twist below ground.” The root system can be interpreted as a metaphor for the LGBT community that found a way to exist and endure no matter the circumstances, or even the tradition of American poetry itself, whose founding mothers are Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, two poets who resisted the norms of their time periods that restricted women from writing.

At the same time, violence is frequently addressed within the collection, including in one of the many poems titled “Red State,” this one addressing the Pulse nightclub shooting. The first stanza begins,

I’m afraid of what the world will do if the other 49 bullets
are in the president’s mouth. If they are tossed
like stones that skip across Florida. If the other 49 bullets
sink to the bottom of our country, if our pulse rate rises.
If hearts explode, if bullets sit in our intestines,
or pass through our kidneys.

This palpable fear increases in the final stanza, when the memory and terror of the Pulse shooting moves closer to home and the potential for violence against any LGBT person, or anyone deemed the Other, for that matter, becomes increasingly real. The speaker imagines the bullets hitting both home and body.

If the other 49 bullets are in pavement. In vinyl house siding.
In brick. In the flesh of the innocent. In the soles of shoes.
In quadriceps. In groins. In necks. In bladders. In spleens.
In throats. I’m afraid if the other 49 bullets are bullets.

It’s hard not to read that poem and think about the numerous mass shootings that have occurred since Pulse and how routine they have become. The imagery of guns and bullets continues in “Keystone Ode with Assault Rifle and Grocery List in It,” which mentions “fruit-shaped guns” in the opening line and “large barrel-bananas” a few lines later. There are “grenades” nestled next to black grapes and green grapes that “explode on impact.” Here, Santalucia takes Ginsberg’s famous “Supermarket in California” poem about consumerism and grocery-story aisles and updates it for this century. Her poem contains“AR-15-grapefruits” and corn that pops when you pay with “your NRA visa.” There is homophobia that exists too, including the closing lines, “To enter, all you have to do / is show up and say, I hate gays.”

The book also recounts Santalucia’s experience teaching poetry in prisons, and at times, such poems lead to a deeper meditation about the country’s violent history. For example, in one of several “Notes from the Commonwealth” poems, the speaker muses, “If the mortar in this stone wall doesn’t melt / and the guard, with toilet paper stuck to his shoe, / doesn’t shoot, we’ll have nothing to write about / when the building is landmarked.” While there may be some humor in those opening lines, especially pertaining to the image about the toilet paper, there is much to be said for the fact that poetry is making it into a prison in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the first place. The very act of writing becomes necessary and important. At the same time, the poem poses a question as to what is worthy subject matter for poetry. What’s worth writing about? Additionally, perhaps the poem can be read as a metaphor for American history and who and what we glorify. Our history is blood-soaked.

Furthermore, the poems that depict a gay couple’s tenderness in such a conservative town, juxtaposed with the state’s natural beauty, are a form of defiance in their own right, a contrast to the recurrent “gun” imagery and violent historical references. In “Keystone Ode to My Wife after Reading Anne Bradstreet at a One-Hundred-and-Three-Year-Old Farm House,” there is mention of a “silent place to love” between two horses, two farm dogs, two blackbirds, two lightening bugs, and several other natural images that the poem lists.

To add, the poem, like the book as a whole, echoes American literature and marginalized voices that still found a way to write, despite the circumstances and/or time period. Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet comes to mind, but the book also references Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg, among many others. Taken as a whole, the collection is steeped in American tradition and American poetry, while at the same time reminding the reader how powerful these voices are and how they continue to remain relevant and inspiring.

While Santalucia’s The Book of Dirt may respond to her transition to rural Pennsylvania to teach at a state university during the Trump era, the poems are far richer and deeper than a single political moment. They speak to survival, be it as an LGBT person living in a conservative pocket of the country, or as a person who overcame addiction. Perhaps most importantly, the collection reminds us that the most defiant act any marginalized person can commit to is to continue to exist and to love. These poems are necessary. They speak to our moment, while engaging with the rich legacies of American poetry.