by Brenda Coultas
Poetry. 6 x 9, 140 pages, paperback
Coffee House Press, 2007
Reviewed by Becca Klaver
What’s the difference between a poem and a ghost story? Are the phenomena we experience projections of our own psyches, just as images that appear in poems are projections of a poet’s? And don’t those images manifest just as mysteriously as ghosts? As Brenda Coultas leads us on a backroads tour of general stores, Underground Railroad stops, haunted apartments, cemeteries, rivers, and at least one famous librarium in The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, we go on a bit of a phenomenological tour as well, and soon see many of these divisions (between poem and ghost story, poetic image and occult vision) collapse, ignored. As Coultas blurs—or renders irrelevant—genre lines, we’re made to examine how much of our own personal and cultural experience is based on hearsay, superstition, intuition, or some sense—sixth or sixtieth—that interprets events beyond the empirical.
A more useful question might be: what are the pleasures of a ghost story, and how are they like and unlike the pleasures of a poem? You won’t return to the ghost stories in Book II of Marvelous Bones, “A Lonely Cemetery,” again and again for their language or insight as you might a favorite poem, but this doesn’t diminish their capacity for gratification. Instead, these poems redirect and redefine readerly desires: they intrigue, titillate. Take this paragraph from “Sister-in-Law’s Paranormal Encounters”:
She stepped outside to wait for her friend to pick her up, but her friend was late so she went back in. She heard the sound a phone makes when its receiver is off the hook. It was. Which was odd, for she clearly remembered hanging the phone up properly before she went outside. She put it back on and the friend called and said, “Why are you playing games with me? I know it was you because I hear the same background music.” During this time, her family’s police dog never stirred or barked. (118)How can we not ask “What happened next”? My pleasure looked something like this: when I got to “A Lonely Cemetery,” I wanted to inhale it, the tug of narrative desire was so strong. Instead, I kept putting off finishing the book, the way you do with a gripping novel. The poems were addictive, seductive—but why? Well, because the ghost stories of “A Lonely Cemetery” do what prose poems do best: they offer certain pleasures of longer narratives in a single jolt. They also offer that other seduction of novels and movies and all popular narrative genres—escapism. I was in the grip of an alternate reality, and I got to let go of my own (and its attendant cynicism), to suspend my disbelief for the sake of art and, yes, entertainment. Entertainment of the campfire variety, folksy and communal.
It is not popular to hope for this type of pleasure from a poem, but I suspect that contemporary poetry would be more popular among general readers—or at least educated, non-poet readers (should it be?— I say why not)—if it willfully engaged more modes of pleasure more often. Much of it prefers instead to think imposingly, to position itself a cool distance from such feel-goodery, as if pleasure could only emerge in poetry as mushy sentiment, or through surprising diction and imagery. (Coultas, among others, deals in a different brand of surprise, including the good ol’ “Boo!”) And then of course there are many poetries—many of which I admire and feel a debt of gratitude toward—that take on the daunting burden of subverting pleasure (poetries that pull the rug out from under our inherited patriarchal, heteronormative literary desires, for example). We need these poets and the theorists riding in their sidecars, but we also need poets who pick us up for a whole new ride and make that ride the poem.
Lyn Hejinian’s use of the term “poet-phenomenologist” to describe Coultas in her judge’s citation for the Norma Farber First Book Award, which she awarded to A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003), feels apt when thinking about Marvelous Bones as well. This epithet seems to point toward just what Brenda Coultas is doing that is unlike any other poet’s work. Her reportages hold the cool sheen of fact. In “The Abolition Journal” she writes: “In the history of the county, they wrote Co. for colored” (27). Out of context, this phrase describes the world as it is, or was. Whatever glint we catch off this phrase is not coming from the sentence itself, which may as well be an excerpt from an encyclopedia entry. Instead, placement is paramount (the sentence is at the bottom of a page that is otherwise half full) and so is the speaker (it sits among a series of excerpts from official documents, indicated by quotation marks, into which Coultas attempts to insert her voice, and the poem enacts this attempt) (27-28). In other words, the speaker’s way of organizing the world, past worlds included, is so deliberate and singular that even a matter-of-fact statement such as “In the history of the country, they wrote Co. for colored” takes on her particular spirit and culture-view, and so becomes poetry. What is happening here might be said another way by the American Heritage Dictionary, which provides this definition of phenomenology: “ . . . method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.”[i]
Interestingly, this project and A Handmade Museum, with their long lines of prose, their collecting and cataloging, their exuberance and celebration, their determination to “notice what’s vivid,”[ii] also place Coultas squarely in the American bardic tradition that has mostly been reserved for male poets. This is perhaps not surprising for the poet who was also the second woman welder in the history of Firestone Steel, but it’s revealing in any case. Allen Ginsberg appears in the flesh—er, spirit—in the first poem in “A Lonely Cemetery,” which concludes with a psychic reader asking Coultas, “Who is that man with the dark glasses and pot belly? Is there any reason I should be seeing Allen Ginsberg over your shoulder?” (68).
There are plenty of good reasons, as it turns out: for all its philosophical heft, this is also the most hands-on contemporary poetics I can think of. A poet who works in cutups and white-outs is still handling words; a poet who works in ekphrastic modes is still responding to a form of art. Coultas is literally getting her hands dirty as she digs through trash and cornfields. Who better to look over her shoulder than Ginsberg, then, not as her Virgil but as her Whitman, “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher” (Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”)? In a supermarket in Berkeley in the 1950s, in a librarium in Oakland in the 2000s—Coultas addresses issues of country, cultural memory, and time as she asks many seers and many landscapes a variation on the question “[W]hat America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?” Her questions were perhaps phrased differently (Who lived here? What happened here? What’s under there? Have you ever seen a ghost?), but judging by the answers collected in Marvelous Bones, they hoped for no less complicated—or frightening—answers.
Coultas’ prose forms and her flat storytelling tone and diction knowingly obscure her artistry, but they also have the added effect of making you believe. Not surprisingly, and in spite of the epigraph to “A Lonely Cemetery” (“every word you are about to read is true / or believed to be so”) the most convincing ghost stories (= the best poems?) are the ones in which Coultas is the subject of the haunting, hunting, or stalking. The awards for scariest stories and best poems, then, go to the entire section titled “The Robert Investigations” (in which Coultas and her friend Robert visit The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland), and to the poems “A True Account of When We Lived in a Haunted House,” “The Shed,” and “The Tear in the Fabric Between Space and Time,” which begins:
They asked us if we wanted our room haunted or not, so we took the haunted one hoping for evidence. When it came, I pulled the covers up over my head and prayed it would go away. When it came to my husband, during a nocturnal bathroom visit, he closed his eyes and ran back to bed. (71)I’ve largely neglected Book I, “The Abolition Journal,” so far, and I want to talk about it now by way of piecing together Coultas’ decision to publish these books as one volume instead of the separate collections they might have been. The two books of Marvelous Bones are connected by certain geographical images—most significantly, the Ohio River, a liminal place that divides a slave state (Kentucky) from a free state (Indiana); is the dwelling of many well-known local monsters; and is the place where Coultas entered the world, her “head crowning on the bridge” (17).
By way of this geographic logic, the two books become a way for Coultas to write a local history on her own terms. In “The Abolition Journal,” she writes, “The preface to my family history reads, ‘There is very little, if any, published about this family or the branches that follow’” (47). Marvelous Bones, of course, fills that gap. That a family history as written by Coultas includes catalogs of names (of towns, former towns, abolitionists, and products), transcriptions of local and family lore, and pages of jokes about Kentucky positions her less as tweedy historian than as town folklorist. Coultas finds the forms that will serve this role. As she writes in Narrativity: “I have failed at traditional forms but I suspect that in the long run those forms have failed me. Maybe, maybe not. Each writer must make and break her own rules. As for now, I'm at work observing, discovering obsessions, and devising a container to carry it all in.”[iii]
The final, crucial, parallel between the two books is the fact that “The Abolition Journal” is a ghost story, too—not simply because of the specters of places and proper names that haunt the book (“Chrisney was Spring Station / Henderson was Red Banks / Owensboro was Yellow Banks” (50)) but, of course, because of the specter of slavery that haunts American culture (I can’t help but be reminded of Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Certainly this isn't typical history typically told, and it can also be seen as revisionist work on behalf of groups marginalized by race and class especially. Coultas’ variation on “the personal is political” is “the local is national,” and she is a poet brave enough to look at—sit with, walk around in—our country’s dumpsters and cemeteries, a.k.a. our guts and our remains, our scariest local sites. This is not some coded way of saying “one person’s trash is a poet’s treasure,” but instead a way of pointing out that not everyone can observe phenomena this closely. Not everyone can see these ghosts. We have been taught to be blind to them; most of us blind ourselves in order to avoid despair. You could probably get away with calling Brenda Coultas many things, but one who heeds dirty, discarded, or dead things this intently is most often simply called a poet.