A Handmade Museum

Brenda Coultas

Coffee House Press

2003

Thursday, August 14th, 2003

I had a hell of a good time with A Handmade Museum, in which Brenda Coultas commits the fairly uncommon trick of going to both country and town. And even though landscapes rural and urban enjoy equal attention here, the collection altogether has the feeling of coming back to the farm, an almost archetypal home defined by a pace that allows a poet like Coultas to stretch her limbs with a leisure that doesn’t deny hard work so much as re-determine what labor (both literal and poetic) genuinely entails.

The most immediate evidence of Coultas’ willingness to take her time—to wander without ever being exactly lost—is found in the book’s preponderance of prose poems. I only use the term to give the reader an approximate idea of what the pieces look like; I encourage you now to discard your preconceived notions of what a prose poem can do. In fact, I encourage you to ditch most normalizations of what poetry must be. No one can say for certain, and the more zealous the quest for certainty becomes, the less possible our appreciation for work like Coultas’, which has a refreshing unconcern for any register of appropriateness outside the sphere of what she herself has chosen. My secret savoring of the term prose poem is the ontological liberation hidden in that oxymoron: either prose and poetry cannot cohabit, in which case the prose poem is neither, or they can exist simultaneously, in which case it doesn’t matter any more what you call the text previously cramped into “prose poem.” Within the graphic boundaries of this “form,” you can often determine the degree to which the writer has bought into these distinctions, and for my taste capitulation is inversely proportionate to invention. Coultas’ writing is substantially free of these anxieties, and the work benefits as a result.

A Handmade Museum is divided into five sections, which follow a (very) rough set of transitions from the Bowery to the rural environment of the poet’s youth and adolescence. The roughness of these transitions disguises a tremendous narrative consistency: although the pieces range to and fro, there’s never any difficulty in establishing the plausibility—indeed, the stylistic necessity—of the narrator rooting through garbage for trinkets of New York du Jour and the narrator digging in the roots of a tree to arrange a goldfish burial. Coultas’ poetry has a level acceptance, reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker and C.D. Wright (in a good mood), that lets her consider things (both at the level of the language and at the level of the conceits that prefigure the language) with an abandon leavened with deep, though never explicit, conviction.

(There is a convention, which I much abhor, of a writer listing his or her mystery or crap jobs as a biographical sketch. I usually object to this because it reads like a plea for authenticity, a sad attempt to adopt the identity of someone who actually works for a living. Most of these lists strike me as catalogues of half-assed efforts indulged by twenty-two year olds in the year they struggled to tough it out before they retreated to graduate school. Imagine my surprise, then, to read that Brenda Coultas has been a farmer, a carny, a park ranger and the second woman welder in Firestone Steel’s history, and actually writes in such a way that reflects these experiences, without having to directly reference them. If such a thing is possible, Coultas writes with the confidence of someone who has done hard and various work. If this is in some measure the source of her conviction, then God bless Firestone Steel and the soil of Indiana.)

In any case, the successes of A Handmade Museum depend on the poet’s confidences as much as her skills. Coultas introduces the first section of the book, “The Bowery Project,” by discussing her respect for Jane Jacobs’ idea of the public character as well as her interest in the unquestionably rich heritage of the Bowery itself, only a block from Coultas’ apartment. As much as I admire a writer who is willing to lay out the terms of her writing before so much as a word is read, I admit to some eye-rolling reluctance upon entering the book in this fashion. Not only do I prefer to read about things about which I know nothing (I was once lodged on 2nd between 7th and 8th, a devotee of Pommes Frites, with the remnants of the Bowery literally just around the corner), I had a hard time imagining what kind of investigation Coultas could perform that would not result in some twee or antiseptic reproduction of a location valued for its unpredictable and often messy fecundity. What, I wondered, was she going to do? Sit her ass down off Houston and just see what came up?

Which is, of course, very nearly what she did, and with observations and language-tatters that provide veracity and surprise:

I squatted down to touch gray Gap T-shirt on street outside Bowery Bar.
I’d just seen an ad of 6 real people wearing same gray T-shirt, thought I
could wear this one. Was damp with a liquid, got repulsed, dropped it.

I take a break from the Bowery, on train to Hamptons to see our Joe and
Janice. Couple fighting, young man with expensive gangster-rapper pants,
hand-tooled 70s belt, two silver mouth studs, perfectly in-your-face
Hamptons punk-gangster chic, saying to plain girl, “This is the worst day
of my life, you miserable bitch.”

Dumpster outside Fisher Sheet Music store.
Can’t see into it, must be climbed.

I’ve cultivated a joy of dumpsters out of necessity, romanticized dumpster
diving in order to make hunting and gathering interesting. I had a good
attitude until recently. I’ve become ashamed, developed a fear of being
yelled at for disturbing the recycling. That’s where I get my magazines.
Some people say “You love garbage, I’ve seen you get so excited about
it.” But really, it’s just a glamorous pose.

Wooden canvas cot folded up and chairs grouped by a fire hydrant
and a man explaining the function of formerly everyday objects
because we couldn’t understand anymore and we couldn’t even
see how the body fit into them nor how they could possibly serve
it. There was a metal dish on stand. It was a nurse’s basin, he
explained. I examined it, turning it over.
There was a long metal cylinder lying on the ground.
“Is that an iron lung?”
“No, that’s a midcentury Electrolux.”

from “The Bowery Project: An Experiment in Public Character”

I quote from this section at such length both to give some sense of texture of a long piece and because this is exactly the point at which the utility of the question “But is it poetry?” falls completely apart. I’ve heard the same question asked of Anne Carson’s “short talks” and her The Beauty of the Husband; the same question asked of Claudia Rankine’s new work; I find the question asinine and inappropriate in each case. Both Carson and Rankine are writing poems that are crisp and disturbing and generally in possession of those provocative elements that conclude in excellence, and the only possible criticism that can be leveled against them is that they lack the spangle, body glitter, fishnet stockings and neon accoutrements of “poetry” that cannot discriminate between what is possible and what is necessary. What is necessary to a specific poem does not indicate just the minimum of what the poem needs to survive; it refers to everything that will make that poem work, and everything includes absences as well as presences. There’s no reason to assume that the former are any less chosen than the latter.

With that point in mind, I celebrate Coultas and “The Bowery Project,” because the poet knows full well that to alchemize these encounters and diary entries with the potions and unguents of poeticization would undermine the very curiosities that compelled her to begin with. To that extent, the signifiers of “poetry” would fold this kind of gold back into lead. Like Rankine (though with a wildly different set of subjects), Coultas is engaged in a kind of reportage that depends upon her poet’s eye, her poet’s ear, her poet’s gift for selection. In the case of both poets, this requires that they not allow their language to get in its own way.

Fortunately, A Handmade Museum is capacious enough to allow Coultas space to resolve these possible misinterpretations by sheer force of variety. Contrast the style of the section excerpted above with these selections from section V:

If you were in prison what would you do?

I was in prison writing my memoirs. I wrote with a shiv, a cloth
wound around a blade, fastened from a plastic utensil. Writing this
way I turned the text into wood. I carved license plates out of soap.
This worked very well until it rained. I think you’re washing with
one now. Does it say 82 Frank 359? I carved out my own special
messages, “Hello” and “Stop the Gentrification Plague” (SGP).

A wall of license plates in Midway, Indiana, has rusted up and
gone back to ore. My soap plates have gone back to animals,
they’ve gone back to fat. I went back. I went back to dirt. I went
back to black holes.

“A Book”

This has been my life weaving a home out of poor materials. How
would I keep out the elements, the wolf and the police? This straw
house is breaking my back. My heap of house of grasses, I love you
because you’re what I’ve found in this life. Such poor building blocks,
would they make a safe home? Could I be a strong house? I look in
the mirror and ask, Are you really? Are you really a future farmer of
America?

The straw floss between my lips… cud… not… chew…
it. Huge ball of hay in my belly.

My favorite farmer rolls hayballs up my beautiful ass.

Hayroll hell no! Cinnamon roll!

I photographed the ball yesterday. I had seen a hawk sitting on top
as mother and I drove by. This singular hayball was rolled there by
goddess farmers or coughed up by the Future Farmers of America.

from “Hayroll”

Here we see that Coultas is entirely capable of letting her language ferment in a more associative and imagistic mode. But these poems are also those lodged most deeply in the poet’s past, and as such they perhaps unfurl in ways meant to communicate both the dizziness of that act of recollection, as well as the unexpected segues from public to private. Regardless, I am convinced of the merit of Coultas’ experiments in public character: she appreciates the diction of the everyday, wherever or whenever that everyday may occur. And most significantly, she neither hides her lyric quirks and deviations in comedy nor values them so precious as to force out the material to which she has committed herself.

“A Summer Newsreel” concludes with

Hey poem, you God’s poem, what is happening today in
Bloomfield? If you were God’s poem you’d know. If you
were really a true & perfect poem of God’s, you’d know.

Perhaps not yet a true and perfect poem, A Handmade Museum nevertheless partakes of the common divine, and for now I’ll follow Coultas wherever her vocational wanderlust leads her.

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2 Responses to “A Handmade Museum”

  1. noah eli Says:

    nice review….I have been completely won over by this book as it does something quite amazing: somehow making the wonderful yet often difficult to re-enter project-y type of work found in say Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, Stein’s Making of Americans or Ashbery’s 3 poems into a very welcoming and re-welcoming place…

  2. Anon Says:

    Picked up this gem at a local used bookstore. Read it before bed, rationing out the pages like holiday candy. Had great dreams. Loved the non-Bowery bits. That said- I really hated the blurb on the back of the book. So much it almost put me off from reading it. It reeked of salesmanship and gave a bitter taste to the opening pages. “Watch the former model/welder write thought-provoking sentences… be amazed.”

    Because people that serve as park rangers or carnival workers or welders are not supposed to appreciate or write poetry. Correct? As someone raised on the blue-collar side of the fence, who has worked in similar lines, the blurb stuck in my craw. Her book did not need the embellishment, the literary EOP at the front door. I can only hope that the publisher was behind it. I want her to be better than that.

    Your line about her writing “with confidence of someone who has done hard and various work” confounds me. Because how does one describe “hard work” anyway? Is being an editor or physicist any less “hard” than welding smooth joints or keeping beer balls out of the park? This whole weaving of the manual life into poetic credibility “bling” is repressive.

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