Jaime Robles: “Brenda Coultas: On The Transmigration of Objects”

Jaime Robles’ essay on Brenda Coultas is part of a collection of essays currently being edited and compiled by Elizabeth Robinson and Jennifer Phelps. The essays in this volume, Quo Anima, consider innovative contemporary poetry by women in relation to questions of mysticism and spirituality.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry puts forth two interlocking theories. The first, that pain eliminates speech, and that the greater pain becomes the more it defies language and description, and thereby “undoes” the world for the human sufferer. For the most part, her theory discusses pain as it appears in its most extreme form: in war and in torture. Scarry seldom, however, talks about the battles that exist on psychological levels: the wars of class, sex or racial difference, although those are implicit in her argument. Nor does she emphasize the pain caused by mere existence until she begins the second half of her book, in which she unfolds her second theory: that human imagination is an endlessly bountiful creator that works counter to the unspeakableness of pain.

Her most fascinating and difficult example of this proposal is her examination of the Judeo-Christian God, which, she posits, is the most radical creation of the human imagination, one whose function is a means not simply to soothe and banish pain but also—in contradiction to the human desire for a compassionate universe or deity—to threaten it. What the presence of God does, whether you believe him manufactured or manufacturer, is to define humankind in its mortality. And the implication—one that is undeniable—in Scarry’s idea is that a sense of external divinity is an innate feature of the human imagination: that it is the deification of our fear of pain.

It’s possible to miss that what Brenda Coultas writes about is pain, especially the pain caused by the psychological forms of class warfare, although it is clearer that mortality is a focus of her concern. For one thing, she presents the environment she inhabits with a droll self-deprecation that resolves into a deadpan sense of humor:

A Bowery Bum asked “Can I talk to you for a minute?” He burped loudly in my ear. Later he asked me to look up at the sun where he had written his name, then to hug him. I did both. Why do I listen to Bowery Bums?
A Handmade Museum, 16

The self that Coultas presents to the reader is that of the naïf, the innocent. Her stance allows her a certain objectivity vis-à-vis her perceived world: she is able to assume, in a poetic version, the perspective and methodology of a journalist or scientist. Innocence, posed as non-judgmental curiosity, is the state of mind necessary to her gathering of what she calls “evidence.” She is the eternal observer: “That is what I do best, sit and look out windows.” (15)

Through the detachment of assumed objectivity, she deflects the most devastating pain that humans undergo: making sense of human cruelty and of universal indifference. She buries it under a sympathetic irony for the absurdity of living in an economically unjust world.

The Bowery is the oldest thoroughfare on Manhattan Island, preceding European intervention as a Lenape footpath, which spanned roughly the entire length of the island, from north to south.[3] When the Dutch settled Manhattan island, they named the path Bouwerij road— “bouwerij” being an old Dutch word for “farm”—[4] because it connected farmlands and estates on the outskirts to the heart of the city in today’s Wall Street/Battery Park area.

In “The Bowery Project,” which opens The Handmade Museum, Coultas examines a world that we in the U.S. conceptualize, and rightly so, as one of painful deprivation, bodily abuse and spiritual degradation: the world of the homeless, represented by lower Manhattan’s Bowery, where bums and junkies shamble and sleep in lean-tos made of old mattresses and cast-off plastic. These are the urban killing fields of poverty, racial and sexual prejudice.

Coultas enters this world as a collector: she is there to accumulate the “goods”—the best that is cast off in our material world. In the Bowery, though, there are reasons why things are abandoned, and she veers back and forth between desire and disgust for these material objects. A Gap T-shirt she finds on the street is the same as the one she sees in glossy ads of “real people”:

“thought I could wear this one. Was damp with a liquid, got repulsed, dropped it.” (14)

The airbrushed models in advertising photography are designated as “real”—a label proved ironic by the factual, and disgusting, physicality of poverty. It’s not a far leap from the cast-off clothes and furniture in the street to the homeless, who have lost their connection, their use, and their beauty within the city they populate; they too are abandoned. Coultas, however, eschews moral judgment and clarifies her presence and her motivations by identifying with the drifting populations of the Bowery:

The intention is not to romanticize the suffering or demonize the Bowery residents but rather to comment on poverty, class, suffering and my own dilemma and identifications as a teacher and poet one paycheck away from the street. It’s the transparent medium I walk through with my own poverty. “Failure,” (http://www.sfsu.edu/~newlit/narrativity/issue_two/ coultas.html)

Coultas is pacing out what Scarry suggests is the motivation behind the great religious books of our collective history—which is to counter existential and physical pain through the imagination. She recognizes the religious analog that links her to the Bowery’s life of pain, and within that she senses a form of power in which a battle is fought for existence. This is both a spiritual and a class struggle:

Needless to say that for me, the Bowery has taken on a metaphysical weight as a passage and frame of mind as well as a power spot where ghosts and the nearly living compete for space with the cell phonies who have come to replace them. (“Failure”)

Scarry often comments about pain’s lack of physicality in the world as being crucial to its unique power to obliterate speech:

Though the capacity to experience physical pain is as primal a fact about the human being as is the capacity to hear, to touch, to desire, to fear, to hunger, it differs from these events, and from every other bodily and psychic event, by not having an object in the external world. (The Body in Pain, 161)

And although the experience of pain may be entirely contained within the human body and therefore objectless, Coultas’ poetry demonstrates that pain does leave physical markers. Tied into the imagination, these markers have both negative and positive aspects: they stimulate not only the creative act of writing in the poet but also evoke memories of pain within the reader. The compassion that rises within the reader in response to the writer’s words is also a creative act.

Coultas explains her Bowery project as a kind of historical preservation, but her fascination with material objects is reminiscent of the Old Testament’s focus on multiplicity: the primacy of Genesis with its creation of all the objects in the universe, in their vast numbers and unreachable scope, and the human drive for begetting all manner of things, especially generations of its own tribe, creates a metatext for our culture that prizes the effusion of material objects. For us, bounty is good. Coultas pursues the bounty of discards:

I used to dream of yard sales, where I was the first person there and every collectable I ever desired was on the table, but I had to grab them before the others arrived. I trembled. I tremble before the good stuff. (16)

The oddity of the verb “tremble” and the adjective “good” serves to mark out the spiritual underpinnings of Coultas’ fascination with material objects. One trembles before God, not before chairs that have escaped being broken or clothing free of stains. Or are they equal? Does her reaction—her trembling—suggest that there is something divine, or at least supernatural, in things—in particular, beautiful and valued things—that escape damage?

Much of Coultas’ poetry is comprised of lists of objects, notated not only with a description, but also with the time, date and place of discovery. Though her approach emulates investigative science, her expressed desire for “stuff” is charged and at times obsessional—she only stops collecting when she has no more room to stash the objects she wants. Failing physical space, objects collect in her writing. But where Coultas’ lists swerve from the material profusions of the Old Testament, which also lists and notates in order to confirm historical accuracy, is in the decrepitude of the material world through which she travels, searching for “goods. Nonetheless, in either cases replication equals aliveness and vitality.

In “Some Might Say That All I’ve Done Is Stack Up a Heap of Objects” Coultas explains the metaphysics and the mission of her search:

Some will say it’s all been done before, and that others have done better but still I stack things up. I don’t think about it, I put blinders on but hope that through accumulation they’ll form a pattern out of chaos. I’ve stacked up twigs one by one, building a structure, weaving and shaping, forming a skeleton out of raw garbage transformed into beauty, maybe with something to say to any Bowery resident or reader of poetry. Please, I am intentionally writing this for you. (16)

Coultas’ dumpster-diving resembles a form of spiritual practice, in which she mines the broken remnants of our consumer culture as if it were a source of riches, both redeemable and hideous, but capable finally of “alchemy”: of transfiguring the lost into the saved. Her collecting allows for reshaping, which is an imaginative act that provides order in an inexplicable world. The act is, finally, one that soothes and overrides pain, and is generously shared. Its sense of community, or communal sharing, lauded if not practiced in Judeo-Christian religion.

Coultas juxtaposes the “reality” of middle-class America’s commercial portrayals of itself as it aspires to wealth and fame to the “ghosts” that are the derelicts and detritus of the Bowery. She takes this a step farther in her second collection of poems, The Marvelous Bones of Time. The book opens with “The Abolition Journal,” in which she draws parallels between Abraham Lincoln’s life and her own:

Lincoln looked out over the river and saw a slave state and he was born in one (Kentucky), like me, but was raised in a free state (Indiana), like me. We were white and so could cross the river. (17)

What she is seeking is some understanding of race, as it may have been perceived by her family; a burden often carried by those Americans who live on the borders of the South, even though racism was and remains endemic in most regions of the U.S. Tagged at the end of this passage is her self-reflexive understanding that her whiteness allows her passage and freedom; the river she is allowed to cross because of her race has spiritual links with black America, the other, subjugated, race. It resonates with the gospel-singer’s river Jordan, over which one passes to reach the Holy Land, a land of saving grace. It is this insight and self-awareness that prod her on to examine her family’s history for a connection to racial struggle.

Her search for her family’s tie to abolitionism begins with discarded objects, which are then set aside as inadequate, figured in a metonym of the South, the tobacco leaf:

I could follow these paths and find car bodies and dump sites
deer bones and garbage
I could mow a new path; still, it would not be evidence
Even if the tobacco leaves all pointed north, it would not
      be evidence.

Thus Coultas begins her pursuit of history by abandoning material “evidence” as a methodology for uncovering the unknown; personal history, especially, cannot be found in physical signs. The world she is seeking is interior and mental as well as chronological, its realm is that of the remembered, and when attached to celebrated historic figures, it becomes mythic.

Coultas attempts a more thorough escape from the material world in “The Lonely Cemetery,” the second half of the book, which is a series of prose stories that she has collected from friends and strangers about inexplicable events that suggest an afterlife, or, in the case of UFOs, a life so alien as to be imperceptible within the physical abundance of the planet’s oikos. In the poem the collection is named after, Coultas does something she seldom does in her writing, although it is a technique—or rather a mindset—implicit in much of her interest in objects: she employs a form of pathetic fallacy. She gives the cemetery humanity by infusing it with her personal emotions: “There are cemeteries that are lonely and there are cemeteries that wish to be alone so they send out ghosts.”

In her late night explorations, achieved on that most mysterious and disembodied of territories, the computer, she tracks ghosts and rounds up stories of the paranormal. No god per se exists in Coultas; rather what she accumulates is evidence of the undefinable. She builds a private cemetery—the locale of bodies abandoned by life, beyond loss and pain—by populating her memory and her writing with ghosts, monsters, aliens and stalkers—presences that exist, if they exist, in the borderlands of our consciousness.

As a child, she writes, the monsters she and her sisters were constantly seeking populated Coultas’ imagination; she could name them but she could not capture them. Stalkers populated her young adulthood, and her current friends tell her stories of ghosts. None of these are terrifying creatures, however, but rather precious attributes of life’s diversity, suggesting realms lying beyond ours. When creatures move from suggestion in the imagination into physical reality, they border on the miraculous.

I dreamed of so many treasures buried in the earth or of just bones, all the bones buried by time, nature, or natives. Given eternity, we could find marvelous bones. (88)

Like ghost stories, the emotional nexus of Coultas’ collected stories, or prose poems, is belief or disbelief. For most of us, belief can only be substantiated through manifestations of the physical—the seen being who is unrecognizable as human, the eerie and disconnected sensations that, nonetheless, can be read as proof of physical presence. By abandoning physical evidence, Coultas moves into pure belief. Belief is an unhampered emotion in Coultas’ writing. She never urges us to believe the ghost stories that she relates, nor is it clear, with her droll sense of humor, that she believes them herself. Her tone is only just convincing. More often we recognize the pervasiveness of her belief by a sudden, sharp but fleeting, confession of pain, especially that caused by loss, which she reveals in her narratives. These moments stand as clear revelations of her sense of what it is to exist:

When I think of death, I tell myself that I’m going to where my father is, and if he’s there, that’s a good place to be. I’m going to the place where all have gone before me, and that’s what makes me human. (80)
I got very upset at the thought that I could be a fictional character in the dream of a dog, but I feel pain and thus think I’m real. (91)

Coultas has maintained in several articles and interviews that she is interested in narrative as a communal activity: “I use narrative to connect, also I’m a sucker for a narrative riff and for beauty.” It is the story rather than the attendant philosophies and psychologies that are her focus, which makes it difficult to derive a consistent theory about the “meaning” of her writing. Perhaps that’s just as well. She tells her stories simply and cleanly; it is the movement of the tale from point A to point B that is primary, rather than decorations of language and device. The beauty within the stories is within each narrative as a recollection of a moment of life: one of those many “marvelous bones” that could be uncovered if eternity allowed us the time.

Her stories are not merely her own. The ghost stories of the several sections of “The Lonely Cemetery” are collections of what other people have told her, confirmations of her sense of community and connection. And, in good faith with that community, she notes in the section’s epigraph: “Every word you are about to read is true or believed to be so.” This impulse to collect harkens back not only to the dumpster diving of The Handmade Museum, but specifically to two poems in that first collection: “A Summary of a Public Experiment” and “Bowery Box Wishes.” In the first, she describes how she set up “a table and a chair and put up a sign that read, ‘Tell me a Bowery story.’” A friend films the stories, which are then retold by Coultas with her descriptions of the person and how the story was told. In the latter poem, which is a “film script for a home movie: 3 mins, b & w”, she describes a box labeled “Bowery Wishes” that she leaves in a public place. She describes, as if it were a film, the many people who come by to drop their wishes in the box:

“Are you going to read them?” someone asked.
“No,” I said. But I wasn’t sure why, I had promised them nothing yet I felt that they had trusted me not to look, but maybe some of them hoped to be heard … what I felt was the need to protect them. So I did.

What she suggests is that languages, especially personal stories, carry with them an obligation. Every story is a form of confession, even if they are unheard, and as such they carry the innocence of the storyteller with them. Throughout her work, Coultas reverences not only those who suffer from poverty and prejudice but also the words they express as a salve to the wounds they bear. With humor and kindness she aspires to heal both the individual and the community through language.

Brenda Coultas. The Handmade Museum. Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2003.
____________. The Marvelous Bones of Time. Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2007.
____________. “Failure”, Narrativity. http://www.sfsu.edu/~newlit/narrativity/ issue_two/coultas.html
Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


Jaime Robles’ poems and reviews have been published in numerous magazines, among them Agenda, Conjunctions, Jacket, and New American Writing. She produces many of her texts as artist books, and her bookworks are in several special collections, including the Bancroft Library, Berkeley; The Beinecke Library, Yale University; and the Oulipo Archive in Paris. Among her awards is a grant from the Fund for Poetry and two publishing grants from the NEA. Her next book of poetry, Hoard, based on the medieval caches of jewelry found buried in the English countryside, was released January 2013 by Shearsman Books. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she currently lives part time in Exeter, UK.