May 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


The Tatters by Brenda Coultas

Brenda Coultas brings an informed sense of wonder to gobs of information passed over by the casual observer. Gathering facts and events she's witnessed or read about, relating tales overlooked or discarded amongst the mass of cultural information swirling in today's growing digital overload. Whether it's her neighborhood(s) or historical evidence she's sifting through, Coultas looks with a well-grounded eye at the street level, keeping things locally informed. Her poems (often in prose) represent the dissemination of this stored material.

I return to the very old book unearthed from beneath the trailer floor.
On marbled paper I read of a wooly mammoth dug up on a farmer's
field and of one found in a block of ice with fresh greens in his mouth,
wearing a coat of long reddish hair and later served as meat to dogs.

While The Tatters is the slimmest of poetry collections it nonetheless carries substantial heft. This cumulative weight hits hard both poetically and emotionally. Dedicated to the memory of renegade indie-media journalist Brad Will killed documenting a political street battle in Mexico in 2006, a heavy sense of loss permeates all of the six poems comprising the book's contents, including the twenty-plus page title poem, along with a "Note on Bradley Roland Will, 1970-2006."

Coultas faces dark moments throughout. The poems are a record of her journey through personal struggles confronting dilemmas brought on by moments of loss in her life. In the face of which she locates fragmented presentations of evidence for the living. In addition to Brad Will, "If I were a quill I'd give you life / on this quiet page" ("A Mass for Brad Will"), she invokes poet-mentors such as Bernadette Mayer for guidance:

[...] I follow my spirit guides Bernadette Mayer
and Brad Will

Bernadette is alive and owns many books and papers
Bernadette eats an egg at her writing desk every morning

I know Bernadette is alive because she leaves eggshells on her
writing desk

Brad is dead even though he used to eat fire

I have some of his objects which keep me from thoughts of his death
I lie
I have none of his objects, only a film of him breathing fire

Coultas frequently returns to the same set of tropes from poem to poem. In "The Midden" she places the speaker directly in the imagined act of embracing fire as a physical environment in which to move through, as if bringing herself closer to the document of Will mentioned above, that "film of him breathing fire."

Walking through coals into a city within the fire
entering the ember, encased in a protective suit
to bring out handfuls of what that world inside burning wood is like

Locating nothing short of a "world" within fire, Coultas brings a vivid sense of staring long and hard into burning flames, projecting herself into them. She continues the description of being inside the flames, among the embers, a space that comes to be seen as nearly a kind of sanctuary, a generator of life force. 

Walking through embers: a marriage with its pleasures of heat and light
and the pain of heat and light
stoking the fire inside

The ubiquity of cell phones is another trope haunting these poems. Now that using cell phones for vocal communication is increasingly a dated practice, she draws attention to their other uses: "I built you a tree of light to see by / To listen to digital libraries in your palm." ("My Tree"). In addition, over the course of several lines in "A Gaze" she comments upon the texting phenomenon which has swept across vast segments of today's society, blithely pointing out the bizarre day-to-day realities we participate in on a regular basis: "A man texts a photograph of his meal, but to who? Himself or others?"; "A man texts a crystal water glass pixels to quench real thirst."; "The leather shoes of the ice man texted forward." And in "The Midden" as part of a lament for the piling up of cast aside non-wireless technologies, reference to what is the rather eerie glow of handheld devices appears:

Dust tops the PC, dot matrix printer, and typewriter in a thrift shop
The Apple in the barn is boxy and hard
Cords long gone
Plastic phones turn a palm into light

Under Coultas's treatment our current day texting phenomenon becomes walking magic. She reminds us how strange everyday readily is when looked at anew. Her richly adept and frequent metaphors likewise work the same lesson: "A fossil is a fiction written by time." ("Animations"), for example, and "The day is a thin wire fence that corrals a herd of thoughts" ("The Tatters"). 

The poet herself is well aware she's but a scribe buried in a clutter of things, struggling to articulate her own place in the larger whole (from "The Tatters"):

I, ephemera, carrying my chemical burden
I, ephemera, once paper becoming plastic becoming digital or
I, ephemera, holding the space
I, ephemera, hold the space

As Coultas mercilessly bares herself as witness to our times, "I, the relic on the street, born during the time of paper and print; my replacements, attached to wireless networks, ride herd down the sidewalk" ("The Tatters"), an inescapable sense of confused pain cements itself everywhere in these poems. Sorting fragments of memory, discovering new paths amongst cast away discards she liberates poetry from the mess of the crowd's vast accumulation of waste, declaring her "gift" to be of one company with the natural world with which it shall merge (from "My Tree"):

My gift is glittery and eternal
even in synthetic shreds
dumped on a landlocked city sidewalk
it finds its way to the sea

Coultas knows that the debris piled up by humanity's endless surge will never escape from the larger orders of nature. She welcomes the cycles of existence. Ultimately, she's a poet-seer in the lineage of William Blake, which is about as "glittery and eternal" as poetry gets.

The Tatters by Brenda Coultas
Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 978-0819574190
68 pages