Hannah Keene Reviews The Marvelous Bones of Time by Brenda Coultas

Coffee House Press, 2008 $15.00

Coffee House Press, 2008

On the cover, neatly printed below the title is Excavations and Explantations, a marker of where to begin, this reveals the subtle doorway between past and present, myth and truth. By digging, reaching back and down into the shore of the Ohio River is how Brenda gives us Book I : The Abolition Journal.

The Abolition Journal at first appears to be a mere collection of historical and textural notes on hills and river banks spanning between Kentucky and Ohio. Coultas defines the landscape through its undeniable beauty, poverty and broken down blue collar townships. She gives us a tender yet brutal map of this place, scattered with bone, lies, and hate. Kentucky, her lines claim, mystifies the rest of the country. And at times, shames the down cast gaze. She gives us a multifaceted region of the country, lost to its own history. It is a breaking down of misconceptions and stiff ownership of regional identity. The very first poem, “The Abolition Journal” works as a key to a map for the poet, a way to trace back different lineages, both hers and not hers, to identify a place in which she herself fits. In the line, “These things can be proven with stone” she begins to find evidence of this proof. A solid grounding happens in the first poem that settles both the reader and the poet.

History here seems more personal and ruthless when whispered in short bursts of verse. The venue of poem transforms history into something hushed and lurking. The precision of Coultas’ usage of space through the first book is in itself haunting. It floats the reader through the transitions between poems as if one was escaping the dark of the Ohio River banks herself. The absence of language gives way for the page to physically embody the gaps in history, in lineage, in family tales. It makes room for all that is implied to have been left behind, the forgotten Kentucky landscape and the Civil War era tragedies.

This collection of poems begs to be undone. Brenda has crafted this book in way that makes each reader take a certain responsibility in their collected national history. As a reader, Kentucky became mine and I Kentucky’s. The juxtapositions between past and present that are starkly made in these poems, allowed me to traverse the landscape of Kentucky. I am reminded as reader, that history is never that far behind us, it is inescapable. Even Brenda as poet, cannot escape the snare of her regional history. She appears to be both caught in the threshold between her present and her state’s past. In the poem, “The Bluegrass State” each set of lines is delivered as fact, given through the authority of speaker but at times, there is a distance that is put between itself and subject. This distance waves a warning of caution in the first book. This feeling of caution is felt just in the very subject matter of the poems. Slavery, race, civil unrest, poverty. No topic is untouchable or mishandled. We are accustomed to a certain political violence and the origins of that violence is present in these poems. The poems are in their very nature political, matter of fact and unapologetic. We lose some of story to the negative space on the page but that in itself is a reminder that “what is lost” is still present.

“A Jar of Tomatoes Canned Forty Years Ago Waits to Be Opened” is a poem structured to build and hold what is lost. It gives clues to how to begin excavations in the lines “some children tore down this house just to see / what was underneath, to find a silver dime and log foundation. / That house passed into fiction.” Out of destruction or deconstruction, what is lost can be excavated and used as proof. The poems continues with “That was not a house / There was not a house / that was a field” renaming the place, back to the ground, almost wipes it clean to continue this process of looking. This looking continues in “Coal Seams Under the Corn Fields” and in the line “only the name remains” finally gives way to a recognition of how language encounters what will be or not be forgotten.

Book II, A Lonely Cemetery, is not so lonely after all. It is filled with bodies, both astral and physical. Here, the poet, invites conversation regarding the history she is carefully excavating, quoted from both the living and the dead. At first glance this change may appear drastic between Book I and Book II but is steeped in meaningful regard to those from Book I who are forgotten in death. It opens with, “Every word you are about to read is true or believed to be so” then, the reader is giving a mimicked letter format that the poet acknowledges was curated, much like history, much like lore. This sets the reader up wander the space between past and present but the option of being skeptical. Just as one comes to history, blindly faithful and yet, curious of what else might by hiding.

As a reader, you want to trust the poet. The poet has only truth in her mouth but ‘poet’ is only a name and a powerful one. A Lonely Cemetery was persistent in asking to return to the ‘name’ and to become aware of whether it stays the same. The last line of “Bloomfield Memorial” again grounds the reader physically with “I only know the land beneath our feet and the alinement of planets over our heads.” If the speaker only knows the planetary and earthly elements, why is the name so important? Because it defines terms, territory. It allows for a familiarity to be known in the unfamiliar realm of the paranormal. The name of something is what makes it trust worthy or unmistakable. In “The Tear in the Fabric between Time and Space”, there is a declaration of a “hope for evidence”, this paranormal evidence is a type of naming that validates the history from Book I. This is how the poet and reader can know what is what and where something belongs. If the poet can give a name to the shadows on the wall or the faint breathe on the back of the neck, history, in the present can have a name that leads to it’s truthfulness.

Join us for a READING with Brenda Coultas and Stacy Szymaszek, and a Workshop, “THE CURIOUS WRITING CABINET,” with Brenda.  FIND OUT MORE.

Brenda Coultas is the author of The Tatters, a collection of poetry, recently published by Wesleyan University Press, and she is a contributing fiction editor at Black and Grey. Her other books included The Marvelous Bones of Time (2008) and A Handmade Museum (2003) from Coffee House Press. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship (NYFA) and a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency (LMCC). Her poetry can be found in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness and the Denver Quarterly. This past year she was a mentor in the Emerge-Surface-Be program sponsored by The Poetry Project and The Jerome Foundation.

Hannah Keene is a poet concerned with anti-memoir, landscape, and trauma. Her work has been present in the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, Hi/typ O salon, Chicago Cultural Center, Madcap Review, The Swell, Sector 2337 and the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection. She holds two BA’s and a BFA from Colorado State University and an MFA from the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago. She lives and works in Chicago.