BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
When I was nineteen, I read at my first poetry reading. It was for Uphook Press’ first anthology launch. I was nervous and I was in a room with a bunch of poets who I didn’t know. It was also the night I met Thomas Fucaloro. A few minutes into his reading, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry, if my heart was beating faster or slower. His poetry was nothing like I had heard before–it was completely honest. I felt as though he was speaking just to me–slipping inside his body and examining his heart. Goodbye Malkovich, hello Fucaloro.
Recently, Thomas published It Starts from the Belly and Blooms with Three Rooms Press in 2014. The book immediately cuts into me like a hot knife, birthing me into the speaker’s world–the first poem is appropriately titled “Waking up in a bathtub full of ice cubes.” Throughout the collection, bodies, and body parts, are everywhere. Instead of the reader merely observing the speaker, the reader literally is electrified to life by the words.
While reading the collection, I kept coming back to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Art of Losing Is Hard to Master.” The poems are obsessed with loss, capturing how the ordinary disarms us, leaving us puking over a toilet seat, in a tub full of ice cubes. The first poem already takes away one of our organs: “I gave her my heart/and she,/she took my kidney.” Thomas explores major relationships and family dynamics seamlessly, not trying to make it pretty or overly intellectualize each moment. He just tells it like it is. For example, the poem “Waiting on line at Ralph’s Ices,” the speaker notes at the end: “Raising a child seems difficult.”
In many of these delicate moments, Thomas is able to expose humor and irony, which is also the way in which the speaker and reader alike can cope with loss. The wildness and aching loneliness of the New York City landscape is everywhere, like a connecting bridge or subway tunnel. For me, as a New Yorker, this made my reading experience even more poignant, as I don’t just picture the environment, but live it every day.
The speaker is pain-stakingly self-aware, a comedian who constantly makes fun of himself as a means to survive: “What’s black and white and red all over?/A penguin who reads too much Anne Carson”; ” You say tomato I say postpartum depression.” ; “Even missing children have sponsors now”. Thomas carefully uses the media and pop culture in order to craft an atmosphere the reader is familiar with; for instance, “There’s nothing worse than going to your sister’s dance recite, sober” illustrates family obligation made unbearable by expensive beer prices and cheesy cover songs. It’s real life stuff.
What I love most is how the book is not shy about pregnancy and abortion. In fact, it examines it over and over again, with a toothpick so fine my gums were bare by the end. In the poem, “My dog knows all my poems,” the speaker explains his messy heart in acute detail, starting with a question: “What has the word “yes” gotten anyone but pregnant?” This question becomes the framework for the entire poem, later answering it itself: “After we said “no” to the pregnancy/you needed something alive”.
The loss is intangible, making it exponentially harder to heal from–it recalls Lucifer from Paradise Lost, in that there is no rebirth in a void. What is empty is empty: “There are days I feel lost without you and you aren’t anything anymore.” The speaker reexamines this void in “Valentine’s Day is a great day for an ex-lover to get engaged” where he literally feels a child growing in his body like a phantom limb. The loneliness, and desire for real human interaction, is so potent, it reminded me of the utter bleakness of Eraserhead.
It’s hard for me not to fall a little bit in love with Thomas Fucaloro, when he describes the New York City landscape as “dead fetus pockets everywhere sucking a little more of me in” via “Staten Island brings out the death in me.” The poem describes a frustrated bus ride (which every New York has experienced at least once) leaving the reader feeling lost among garbage and and an underpass where “even the death here/is fake.”
For me, It Starts from the Belly and Blooms is like having a conversation with myself–chaotic, messy, violent, aware, vulnerable, and scary. It’s a conversation you know the answers to but are too afraid to say. While the book is definitely am emotional journey not always easy getting through, it ends with beauty, with rebirth: “so I gave it a sound/a sunrise/a star.”
Thomas Fucaloro is an NYC poet and editor for Great Weather for Media. His first book, Inheriting Craziness is Like a Soft Halo of Light, was released on Three Rooms Press in 2010 to rave reviews. He received an MFA in creative writing at the New School.