Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Brenda Coultas is one of those startlingly original poets who makes you scratch your head & reach for all manner of inappropriate comparisons just to contextualize what she’s doing to American verse. Generally she hangs with the post-avants – one might align her fascination with history & documentation with the likes of Cecil Giscombe or Paul Metcalf (or, most recently, Stacy Szymaszek), all writers who extend the Olsonian tradition of poet as archivist. But Coultas is also interested in the local & the offbeat to such a degree that she totally sidesteps the implicit heroism of the questing historian. In The Marvelous Bones of Time we hear her called, as surely as she must have been as a child, both coatless & poultice. Yet in no way is this fabulous, quirky volume a recitation of childhood, even as it tackles issues that have everything to do with one’s place in the world. Ultimately, the writer she reminds me of most – perhaps because he also hangs with the post-avants but is truly unclassifiable – is Merrill Gilfillan. Gilfillan, tho, is a great nature writer, a totally different focus than Coultas’ much more social poetics. Yet both are people you can read for the deep pleasure that is just present everywhere in their exacting, intelligent work, as they turn your attention to topics you never would have imagined choosing to read about. Both are poets who mine that fine borderline between poetry & prose, bringing the strengths of both to most of what they do. And both are writers of “inner America,” a very different land than along any of its coasts.

If Laurel Blossom’s Degrees of Latitude was an instance of the poem as book, The Marvelous Bones of Time is two such projects – right down to separate tables of contents. The first, and shorter, of the two, is The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County), which explores the history of slavery on the border between slave & free states – and the history of slavery & the Coultas clan.¹ The border here specifically is the Ohio River, separating the southern limit of Indiana from the northern limit of Kentucky. Kentucky was one of several border states – Maryland, West Virginia & Missouri were others – that technically remained in the Union during the Civil War (West Virginia was, in fact, created when it did not join with the remainder of Virginia in seceding) while permitting slavery. In several of these states there were attempts to secede & Kentucky went so far as to create a Confederate government in exile. Both Abraham Lincoln & Jefferson Davis – and Brenda Coultas – were born in Kentucky. Like Lincoln, she was raised north of the river.

The Abolition Journal is more recognizably poetic of the book’s two sections, for example:

The engineer conducted a train
regularly he (colored)
and free
the silent train
riders (of what color?)
moving toward water

the train has a head and runs through the night
the length and carriage of it
trees and crops fly by

driving through a finger of water
over the shoulders of a river
into the mouth of a creek
toward a point on shore

But then there is this, entitled “War of Words”

There was a war between the Kentuckians and the Hoosiers. The Kentuckians were throwing firecrackers and the Hoosiers were lighting them and throwing them back.

There was a Hoosier fishing on one bank and a Kentuckian fishing on the other. The Hoosier was catching lots of fish while the Kentuckian had none. The Kentuckian said “I’m not getting any bites over here.” The Hoosier said “Come over and try this side, I’ll shine my flashlight beem and you can walk over it.” The Kentuckian said, “No way, I’ll get halfway there and you’ll turn it off.”

Have your heard about the new state farm?
They put a fence around

Why do ducks fly upside down over
There’s nothing worth shitting on.

Do you know why they built a bridge across the
Ohio River?
So Kentuckians can swim across in the shade.

The second section – or book – within this book, A Little Cemetery, consists of four sequences, each of which has to do with the tales of ghosts, monsters or other matters of the paranormal. This piece comes immediately after the sequence – an account of trying to make a film of pet pigs that has become harder because the pigs have been eaten – which actually gives the book its title. It’s called “More Monsters”:

Several people offer to help us with our monsters. What do you mean by help? I ask, not sure if they intended to offer moral support or to help us capture the creature. Although we read the sign that said, “Take only memories,” we want to borrow our creature as proof of something bigger than ourselves and our big box stores, presidential funerals, and wars. This creature could cause all the books to be rewritten, all of science to pause and start over again. A harmless swatch of sweat or spit, the DNA is all we need, but we must get close enough to put a swab in its ear. We intend to give the monster back, not to murder it. Our trap? We need wire and steel, to build a cage to contain it, or we could live in the cage, in the thick of the deep woods protected by steel.

A Little Cemetery, in this sense, is the closest thing I’ve read in a serious work to something akin to the X Files. But it is also the case (and probably where I’d turn if I were trying to work this out in a much longer paper) that in addition to all these supplements from beyond the grave the driving force here seems very much to be gender.

In an issue of the journal Narrativity, Coultas once wrote of herself:

I'm a failed short story writer in the traditional sense. I write the way I write because I have no choice. I wish I could write in a traditional narrative shape (plot, characters, conflict), I mean that I don't do characters that begin to talk and speak as independent entities with free will. I've always been attracted to language more than plot and character. And I hate most fiction. I hate the whole artificial structure of popular fiction yet love artificial elevated language. My last attempt at straight fiction has left me stuck with 6 pages of notes about Southern Indiana carnival life. But every once in a while I fall in love enough to keep going.

I focus on sentences and images. I like to describe. I'm most influenced by documentary film and photographic essays at the moment, and taking a cue from visual artists and piling up a lot of shit (dumping memories, images, found objects into a journal), then sculpting it for a shape. I use narrative to connect, also I'm a sucker for a narrative riff and for beauty. I'm called a poet and prose writer and I'm at home with both titles: however, my main company consists of poets and poetry is a large chunk of my literary diet.

Except for the “failed” bit, this sounds on target, accurate to the experience of Marvelous Bones. What Coultas doesn’t discuss, tho, is how she goes about that sculpting process, which in fact is what makes this work riveting, completely unlike a “piling up.” Rather, both projects here feel more like careful stalking, circumambulations of nuance, accumulations of meaning into layers. The result is a complete world, quite unlike any other.


¹ Full disclosure: while my direct ancestors mostly appear to have arrived in North America after the end of slavery, my father’s third wife – I’m the eldest son of the first – was a member of the Heyward clan, descended from Thomas Heyward, who signed the Declaration of Independence representing South Carolina. The Heyward clan, I am told by my half-siblings, was once the largest slave-owning family in the state. One Heyward, DuBose, wrote Porgy and Bess, the novel, the play, plus the libretto and, with Ira Gershwin, some of the lyrics to the musical. Stephen Sondheim has called DuBose Heyward “the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater.”