Brenda Coultas unearths the eccentricities and tragedies that congregate along humanity’s borders: vanished nations, the mutable names of rivers, the clues left behind when families disperse; terror and beauty, the banalized crimes of complicity, the diversions of superstition—but also the persistence of clairvoyance
Brenda Coultas, The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, Coffe House Press, 2007.
Incorporating memoir, folktales, fact, and hearsay into two distinctly moving poems, this collection begins with “The Abolition Journal,” set near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, and along the Kentucky border where “looking from the free state / there is a river then a slave state.” Here, Coultas delves into her personal history and uncovers a land still troubled by the specter of slavery. In “A Lonely Cemetery,” Coultas collects and investigates “true” tales of UFO sightings, poltergeists, legendary monsters, and eerie crematoriums, exploring the very nature of narrative truth through the lens of the ghost story.
“As the title suggests, The Marvelous Bones of Time is a meditation on earthly things: vanished nations, the mutable names of rivers, the clues left behind when families disperse; terror and beauty, the banalized crimes of complicity, the diversions of superstition—but also the persistence of clairvoyance. Resistance in the form of a poem such as this.” —Rikki Ducornet
When I first turn the pages of the The Marvelous Bones of Time I take a breath—the beauty of the space and the fractured lines. I love unevenness. In Book 1—The Abolition Journal—I find myself following Brenda—I'm sure it's Brenda and not a narrator—as she explores and maps out the place where she grew up. She wonders who am I, where do I come from, what is this place, what is this language: "I was a Midway Panther", "I (am a color", "I knew the names". We are following her on a poetic research project, through memory, observation, digging through texts and talking to people. And the past is always there in the present, the language transformed over time, but still when you set it side by side, piece by piece, Hoozier, Yankee, and those lyrical wonderings and speculations, Whitman-like repetitions, one poetic moment beside another moment, Brenda maps out a life and the uneven traces left behind. How do we define ourselves? Who are we? Here the emancipation proclamation comes back again and again as the border between then and now, between him and her, between them and us. between Kentucky and Indiana. At one point we get on a train with Brenda and she's talking to "the only African American passenger on board" and he tells her "Owensboro [is] Heaven". The next thing you know, in the next poem, we're in Owensboro, Kentucky, walking down the street as she reports on her project.
The second half of the book is a collection of short ghost stories. The three stories I like the best are "A True Account of When We lived in a Haunted House", "Where You'll Be" and "The Shed". The first one is a story of a welder and fashion model (Brenda did work as a welder) who is stalked by an unknown man who eventually forces her to relocate. A haunting? The fear of the unknown stalking you. "Where You'll be" is a story about a father who dies; it's an anti-ghost story, an ordinary quirky story about living with death.
"My sister placed a brand new set of socket wrenches in my father's coffin. The coffin was not very plush: in fact, it was bottom of the line; my mother wanted to spend a thousand dollars more for a plumped-up one, but we talked her out of it because he had always said not to worry about the dead, it is the living who suffer. The burial policy and veteran's benefits give us about five thousand to spend, just enough to cover the cost, including something for my uncle Harry who worked part time for the funeral home. My father said he didn't want any flowers, just a rose in a Coke bottle. But he did get flowers, some with angels that played music; he got basket and plants, most still living. My father didn't have a suit, so we buried him in Uncle Jim's old clothes and thought we better call Little Jimmy and warn him, so he wouldn't be shocked to see my dad laid out in his father's suit. We sent my father out into the cold darkness, wearing another man's clothes.
"When I think of death, I tell myself that I'm going to where my father is, and if he's there, that's a good place to be. I'm going to the place where all have gone before me, and that's what makes me human."
Great advice for living. I love the simplicity of this story growing out of ordinary daily life. But finally the story I like the best is "The Shed," a continuation of Brenda's earlier film project. First there are stage directions to make a film in our mind of a pig shed and life around the pig shed, but the pig shed doesn't exist anymore. It's there in the film and it's also gone. And the story is about that process of being and not-being. There are directions for us to create this film in our minds: "Dig a wallow and fill with water." Then there are children throwing their dinner scraps into the "hog slop" and a reference I think to the ghost child in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl: "Can you film the ghost of Pearl? Pan out to the humans, on bicycles and foot, rooting in junkyards on the old Moore place, rooting in ravines full of abandoned cars." Then a close up to perhaps the center of the memory, inside the consciousness of a little girl in the pig shed: "I am a small human, so small that my underpants come up to my armpits". And then we move back in time with the narrator for an overview: "I dreamed of so many treasures buried in the earth or of just bones, all the bones buried by time, nature, or natives. Given eternity, we could find marvelous bones." Coultas is a collector, a collagist, a materialist, an objectivist, placing bits of language and narrative side by side, or at angles, and the white space around them gives the impression: yes we were here, yes all is lost, but yes with a little digging around, we'll discover again the past in the present—quirky, deep, ridiculous, outrageous, frightening and sometimes reassuring. In this collection, with this investigative project, Brenda excavates the marvelous human and pig bones in time and place. Thanks, Brenda. - Barbara Henning
As the title suggests, this collection is two books that take up history, memory and ghosts as they exist in “objects of the earth,” as Coultas writes. Both books seek to excavate and explain. The first book, which looks like poetry and sounds sometimes like reportage, looks at the poet’s ancestry by traveling the back roads, digging through the dumpster to understand who she is and where she came from. Interestingly, the second book, a more traditionally organized series of stories about ghosts, monsters and UFOs, ruminates around the idea that history can be known through mythology and folk tales.
So the spine of the book is story, narrative -- first via poetry in the section titled The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County) and the second, titled A Lonely Cemetery, via myth. Poetry serves the first section because it allows Coultas to muse and wander off the beaten path as she pieces together her family and looks for the answer to the question she poses early on, “are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” Coultas, who received the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Faber First Book Award for her book A Handmade Museum, was born in Kentucky, “between the free side and the slave side,” thus the specter of slavery hovers like another kind of ghost in Coultas’ investigation. The second book explores how history can be revealed through the myth-making genre of the ghost story. This collection of tales gathered by Coultas is another kind of excavation. And here Coultas introduces us to stuff of myth -- characters and places that are quirky and vivid. One of my favorites is the Librarium, “a columbarium where book-shaped urns sat on enormous bookshelves…This is a very good resting place for a poet,” writes Coultas. These paranormal narratives serve several purposes. They’re quite different from the poems, and yet they illustrate what Coultas has been up to throughout the book. As she writes of her “rough, crazy quilt,” book, “I thought to loosen it all, to pull the thread/let the rags fall.” That is indeed Coultas’s impulse -- to dig , to loosen and to expose, not in grand places but at the edges of the ordinary. “The city dump is my memoir,” she observes. As good a place as any to uncover the bones of family and community narrative. - Pamela Hart
Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum, Coffee House Press, 2003.
Following Mina Loy's footsteps to the dumpsters of the Bowery, New York poet Coultas works in public: "I write poems for twenty, that's twenty people to a poem." In these five sets of poems, Coultas unearths an entire America, "Buffaloville/ Newtonville/ Yankeeville/ Patronville." - Publishers Weekly
Brenda Coultas’s prose poems take us on a well-documented tour from the Bowery, pre-1900 and post-9/11, to southern Indiana, pre-automobile and post-genetic engineering. Her poems are sculptures pieced together from bits of memory and a montage of American detritus. This cinematic and wildly original collection asks the big questions as it documents our private selves, playing out our lives in public.
Before becoming a poet, Brenda Coultas was a farmer, a carny, a taffy maker, a park ranger, a waitress in a disco ballroom, and the second woman welder in Firestone Steel’s history. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Conjunctions, Epoch, Fence, and Open City. She lives one block from the Bowery in New York City.
Mina Loy's poems were first ridiculed as waste when published in America. She was before her time, as they say. Coultas, too, ventures into unknown territory daring to collapse genres, contain the urban and rural and allow language to move along the surface of the ordinary. The first part of the book is an honest sketch of experiences in the Bowery at its most basic level. In the garbage, treasures and mere trash are discovered. It is what it is, and Coultas gives us a chance to see the world through her eyes. She also presents a world on the stage, behind the camera lens, projected and false. It can be manipulated, the world and the words that shape it. - Megan A. Burns