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

Perfect feathers


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

Half eaten

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

It’s quiet.

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?)



Messages barked

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.