A New Orleans Guidebook of Sorts

A Review of Vincent A. Cellucci's An Easy Place / To Die

An Easy Place/To Die by Vincent A. Cellucci
CityLit Press 2011, 100 pages
Reviewed by Megan Volpert

Vincent Cellucci's debut poetry collection, An Easy Place / To Die, is the quintessential New Orleans guidebook. Even to say this is somewhat understating the case. Formally, the poems expand and contract with the humidity of white space being put to a variety of irregular and blasphemous uses. Imagistically, the poems are snapshots of an infamous daily grit and nightly sludge that draws millions of tourists to the city each year. Tonally, the poems are a ferocious, defensive yawp sung in the disjointed notes of an often drunk local. Philosophically, the poems threaten to reveal a truth about this city that is all underbelly, about the ugly interchangeability of disaster and adventure. It's a solid throwback for anyone who loves The Crescent City and a cautionary tale for anyone who plans to love it in future.

The book is divided into four sections, followed by a few prose-type bits that explain the majority of what is in the four sections. Those end pieces are likely cribbed from Cellucci's abstracts for his thesis defense, of which much of this manuscript was a part. They do the heavy lifting for readers that feel lost, but to those that can dive deep into these stormy waves alone, the explanations will feel awkward and almost out of character. Cellucci is not at home in the explanation of his work; he's at home in the work itself. And what a place to call home.

As the title suggests, New Orleans is an easy place to die. The first section, “Uruk—cradlecasket,” highlights two recurring aspects of the collection: content that echoes Gilgamesh's epic quest to secure immortality for his friend, who is in this case the city itself, and form that smashes words together in a bizarre multi-functionality that operates a bit like conjoined twins might. Cellucci has a fine ear for polysemy, but also for the mouthy dialects of the place. In “BlueDelta” for example, is this tightly crafted little story: “Don't throw none / bother none / whoeva you looking for / idn't here / come now / depends / get on out my house.”

The second section, “Ishtar Castles,” is primarily addressed to a steady stream of generic women who go by the title of “nother,” a confused yet oddly optimistic reportage of romantic missteps that is simultaneously “another” and “no other,” as in: “@ some point / I'm going to have to tell nothers / I love hers before shes tell me to go to hell” (31). The third section, “Death by Heaven's Bull,” is more personal and returns to the epic battle for simple survival in a fairly incisive way. For example, in “Me Gustaría Muerta,” there is the closing line: “breathing / confesses / wanting.” Or in this selection from the very beautiful “White Azaleas or Axioms for my Daughter,” which jarringly makes strong use of clarity for the first time in the collection: “Drugs are fire hydrants; they can save you when you need them but park in front of one or leave one running and you'll get towed or extinguished.”

Toward the end of that section, the bodies begin to pile up, and the book charges into its final section, “Elixirextinction.” This section consists of five short pieces and the very lengthy “Causeway,” in which Hurricane Katrina has finally come. The citizens of New Orleans are characterized as thermophiles, ancient bacteria that thrive in very high temperatures. Katrina is neither the city's first trauma, nor its last. In this remarkably astute debut, Vincent Cellucci cuts his teeth on the specific liminality of New Orleans, demonstrable in the “Causeway” epigraph he has chosen from Alice Notley: “More important than having / been born is your city / the scale upon which your / heart when you die will / be weighed.”

Megan Volpert teaches high school English in Atlanta. Her MFA is from Louisiana State and her fifth book is Only Ride (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). She co-directs the Atlanta Queer Lit Fest and serves on the board of Poetry Atlanta.

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