Brenda Coultas is the author of The Marvelous Bones of Time (2008) and A Handmade Museum (2003) from Coffee House Press. A Handmade Museum won the Norma Farber Award from The Poetry Society of America, and a Greenwall Fund publishing grant from the Academy of American Poets. Since coming to New York City in 1994, she has served as program assistant and series curator at the Poetry Project in NYC, and along with Eleni Sikelianos, she edited the Poetry Project Newsletter. Coultas has taught at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and at the Study Abroad on The Bowery poetry program at Bowery Arts and Science, and the Poetry Project in New York City. Her writing can be found in many publications including: Conjunctions, Brooklyn Rail, Trickhouse, and the Denver Review. Other books include Early Films (Rodent Press) and A Summer Newsreel (Second Story Press). She received a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) fellow in 2005 and is currently a LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) artist-in-residence.
Excerpt from “The Tatters”:
from A Critical Mass
yellow stemmed feather
earlier a blue jay,
after a battle
finding ourselves holding onto
Transmission today while walking briskly, slightly ruffled
Before bed, round butter cakes
Going to bed, devils’ food. Bright red between sheets.
On growing a perfect wing,
I forgot about the purpose of flight
The cloak of a Peacock
A wet pigeon said
Why don’t I ask for what I really want?
Deep round cake pans
We have more loose feathers than wild roaches.
I have forgotten the purpose
Of touching a child’s hand
Pigeon shit on sidewalk
In taking it apart
To see how it works
I realized that I wish to control the means of production
In taking apart a system
Or a murder or a flower
To see how it works
I am not careful
I break/ force/ forget the relationship between parts.
My father could reason it out. He had a talent for spatial arrangements. My brother could
take apart a machine but there it would lie gutted until the parts decayed. Like my
brother, I could never assemble that machine again through my own neglect and lack of
talent for seeing and understanding the nature of physical objects.
None of this is good
From the time when objects were made of wood, we cannot return
From the printed page, we cannot return
When ships were made of wood, there is no return
Cast iron, pumped by muscle
Pulleys and rope
Linens climb in and out the window
(this I recognize, cast iron circle, and hemp)
Rum soaked cake
On the table
To this we return.
Dorothy Podber’s belonging on the sidewalk. Charred wood, even though that building
was never on fire.
Diagrams of electrical machines. I like to look and don’t care that I don’t understand.
I have lived a long time without knowing the names of the trees.
Barely able to recognize a locust leaf, and yet I can recognize the sight of Oak, even
varnished or cobbled into a desk or plank. I have lived here, not knowing the difference
between a rock dove and a pigeon. Of my apartment, knowing only that the cock roaches
are German and the rats Norwegian. I believe I could name all the animals of the world
but not all the insects.
If I were a ghost, and I could be one turning the key for the thousandth time, walking
through the doorway, and turning on a tap. I have heard that ghosts are very tired which I
could see, having no bloody heart, drawing energy from grids or from the living. Making
cold spots, the cold makes me sluggish too. And I am concerned about eternal life of
ghosts because most ghosts say “Go away.”
None of this is good and I worry about wood or if we will ever have enough materials to
assemble the object after taking it apart
I took apart the hornets’ nest.
After my brother sprayed it with heavy chemicals and killed them all.
Breaking apart the clay.
Wasps in paper coffins.
In pursuit of the natural world, I cut a swath. A giant lifting boards and logs, uncovering
sleeping animals, or embryonic mice, worms, snakes, and salamanders all call me an
Today, cast iron wood cooking stove pulled up from the basement. Pinball machine,
bubble gum machine still filled with candy, coin slips cut out.
Tonight, perhaps more of Dorothy Podber’s belonging, a wooden storage chest: from
below the street level, rotten wood. Moisture, earthy, soft. The color in the dark, is dark.
Carmel, moist and full of the earth’s products. Like the rats who live below us, a night
shade of dark, not rotten yet full of the rot of newspapers, my contribution; I collect
ephemera, and revisit it, gleaning, when I am alone, making lists and piles by color or
subject or time.
Taking apart the nest, all in their beds of grey
I had to know and then I had nothing, clumps of paper, and the dead in their paper beds.
Hundreds. And my brother was mad at me.
This does not prevent me from asking
What is inside the trunk on the street?
Picture postcards? Soft porn or hard sex toys?
Nightgowns and sleeping caps
of flannel or whiskey?
Looking at the ground, the tatters of the nest I destroyed
But how else could I know the nature of physical objects, and of my body.
I, a physical object.
What’s inside this body? The Mutter Museum and its collection of swallowed needles,
fish hooks, and pennies.
For a long time looking in, gazing, trying to know
The nature of the physical, like the man who could balance jagged, sea rocks, one on top
another. He could know an object and if those boulders could be stacked as steady as
plates or as delicately as a house of cards.
I, a physical object, reading Anatomy, 1924, colored plates, diagrams with overlays. It is
good that I saved these thick books, each one a doorstopper on anatomy and child care,
from someone else’s previous life. From the time of paper and print, colored plates to lift
and reveal. Each plate, like a candy pop, taking you further, dissolving layers until you
reach the baby soft center.
Diagrams, like this one. See.
Atticus told me of finding the foot pedals of a sewing machine covered in dust on Mott
St., about how he put his foot to the pedal and the flywheel turned although the rest of
the machine was extinct.
Flywheel, I like to say it and see it.
Alone with paper, or reading from paper, in a room
Me, a noun, an animal from the time of the animals,
I write and I eat with my hands.
Going inside the tatters: threads and grasses
A nest: all the elements of paper assembled
Working late and decoding secret writings from the tatters ( read once of a wealthy young
artist who slept in nests he made out of bedding in hotel rooms. I thought a nest should be
made from discards, like a quilt.)
Cleanly folded paper lying in street,
A job request for urine.
I close my eyes
A broth of steaming piss
The feather again (the blade). This time on the street.
First quietly in front, then as I move, cocks quietly towards the 10 o’clock position. Later
in the day, silently soaked with winter salt.
Too, same roach and rat.
Can’t recall the center, only the fury with which I tore it, then a drop in the blood at
realizing what I had done.
Paper at my feet.
What little I know of other lives.
My father’s workshop, wooden tables turned to rot. Slumping
Tools, rods, belts, motors.
A Hoarder buried under her own greed for
newspapers and receipts
(Is reading & writing an act of composing or composting?)
Out by Frank’s box or the poems of Hannah Weiner
And I follow my spirit guides Bernadette Mayer and Brad Will
Bernadette has lots of books and papers.
Poets build bookshelves: the worse part of poetry is the paperwork.
Poems distract poets from thoughts of death.
Objects distract me from realities.
Objects protect me from thoughts of death.
Yours and mine.
Film of Brad eating fire or of Brad’s wedding to a man in a time before men married men.
Watching him eat fire.
I have some of his objects which keep me from thoughts of his death. I lie. I have none
of his objects.
Grandpa wrote his figures on panels of cig cartons.
And I save their clutter too, even the phone numbers
I won’t erase them thus keeping the Database of Phantoms alive.
Robert felt incomplete until the ashes arrived. Well, and then he really had something.
Wooden bowls feed me.
Cup of tea makes me know I am alive
(If I were dead I could not feel the heat of the cup or taste the bitter tannins.)
Cup of tea distracts me from my death and the death of everyone I love.
Bloodstained napkin told of toothache
Cup of tea told me I was alive
Seed pods lay crushed on sidewalk
Rattan dining set told me to sit down and watch
Bulky coats feed the pigeons and squirrels
Chair legs ordered me to the desk, to write of this.