Sunday, July 20, 2008



Derivative of the Moving Image by Jennifer Bartlett
(University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 2007)


The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations by Brenda Coultas
(Coffeehouse, Minneapolis, 2007)


BEAUTY [IS THE NEW ABSURDITY] by Jennifer Scappettone
(Dusie, 2007)


Dog Girl by Heidi Lynn Staples
(Ahsahta, Boise, 2007)

What 20th century innovative artists came to see is that the form that the experiment takes is not preliminary to the answer, not preliminary to the creation of the art object. It is the answer. It is the art. Just as the essay is not the result of the investigation, it is the investigation going on in writing that, in the radical mode of any lively thought, does not, at any given point, know entirely where it’s going. This means that its openness to its inability to conclude, its refusal to know, rather than to sense, suspect, consider, theorize, contemplate, hypothesize, conjecture, wager… forms it as an experience of being in the world where uncertain and unpredictable life principles (in contrast to prescriptive rules) always exceed the scope of logical inference or imagination.

--Joan Retallack
“The Experimental Feminine”

Jennifer Bartlett’s first full collection, Derivative of the Moving Image, bears the weight of its presentation of nostalgia and sentiment well. That is to say, although this is an often personal poetry, so full of psychological dimensions rarely does it escape from out the subjectivity of the poet, it does at times, however, escape and the results are quite fine.
From a Paris Hotel Room

It was the spring after my sister died that I begin to notice
the moths. They would follow me from room to room beating
against the window shades or showing themselves in the one
tiny patch of light as I dressed for the day. Some days, some
hours, I would count as many as twenty and still they held no
significance for me. I saw them as many see the trees that line
the highway, just passing objects.

One afternoon when the rains came I let the girls take off all
their clothes and run naked in the yard while I danced around
them in my blue nanny dress. I don’t know why I did that. That
night the moths were so large that they woke me like a burglar
might. I put bowls of sugar around the house to keep them
from the books.

Occasionally, the elder of the two girls will touch my arm and
speak of my sister as if she remembers her. She tells me that
my sister is dead.

Then the moths. They like to linger in hot places like the roof
of the car. The smaller ones cling to my hands as I water the
garden in the morning. When I ask others if they notice the
creatures with the same consistency most deny it or act as
though it is ordinary. The few that show an interest describe
them as hideous monsters. I argue them to be more beautiful
than butterflies.

Is this the New Confessionalism? No, it isn’t, at least not precisely so. There is far too much of Bartlett present here yet she manages not to overdo her self-importance. It isn’t gushy or indulgent. There is just the right amount of restraint and the prose-like line she employs stays the hand of sing-song woe. These are some heavily seeming symbolic moths but Bartlett isn’t over-stressing that symbolism. In fact, she’s more likely sharing in Bernadette Mayer’s assertion of what confronts you being a woman and a poet:
Remember that woman I told you about who came to take a picture of Lewis and he said I was a poet too, and she looked at me and Sophia and Marie carefully crawling on me and she said, oh really and when do you get time to write? There's no use ever actually saying you're a poet, it's a disservice to yourself except for the wonder you can sustain among the moths, but you'd better say it anyway.
(The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, 59-60)

Bartlett may or may not have knowledge of this passage, but she does nonetheless convey a sense of “the wonder you can sustain among the moths.” Bartlett embraces the desire to tell the reader where she’s been, where she is, what is happening, what she remembers, to set her story down propels the book along. The strength required to keep that energy going, to not get bogged down by all the shit the world is ever tossing before the poet, is her greatest achievement here. The poems keep going, keep her going, and keep the reader going as well.

Death appears a frequent trope yet isn’t mere literary decoration. As V.B. Price acknowledges in his Foreword, “[Bartlett’s] poems deal, in part, with the crushing circumstances of untimely and unexpected deaths in her family and of the emotional traumas…that afflict us all time to time.” She draws heavily upon biographical occasions in what amounts to a spiritual search for ordering principles to be found in the practice of poetry. In acts of faith committed by herself, or those around her, Bartlett locates within the poem an understanding of life’s rather particular and at times peculiarly conscious circumstance.
Ghost Boy

I think about death all the time now. She slides her body
between us, even on the most vivid days. We are as simple as
this, moving through rain, your thin hands reaching for fireflies
to save them from the heat. Why do you desert me? You know
my limbs are fragile; like paper dolls I could tear at any second.
I cannot bear one moment without your eyes in my direction,
your breath writing notes across my skin. Or: lying across water
we face opposite directions. I am the drop of a hat on your bed.
Blue, I think it was.

From her memories, as in these lines from “The Yellow One,” emerge such instances which reinforce the balanced desire between the world that is and a possible other,
the getting there a pilgrimage in itself
much like the one taken each year in New Mexico
seventeen miles from desert
                  to piñon grove into the village
with twin churches. This procession led into
the larger church with its collage of abandoned crutches
suspended over a hole of healing dirt that
                                     (a miracle in itself)
                                                 replenished each day.
When William Everson came here he ate the dirt,
                  this obscure, drastic gesture
leading him closer to God in that instant
                                    than all poems.

Bartlett aligns herself with the gravity of Everson’s person and his poetry (finally a lay Catholic mysticism mixture of bear, Pacific coast, and Jung.) It matters. Who one is and what one does is deserving of representation within the poem. This is not a current trend of many poets working today. Too many shy away from placing, as Keats would have it, a “living hand” in their poems. Bartlett, however, would appear have none of that and has no truck with drawing parallels between a centuries dead poet like Li Po and her own lover.
I am in love with him
only because he is so much like you,
a man likely to fall into a river
trying to embrace the moon.
(“Li Po’s”)

That “only” reveals her hand in the romance. She’s chasing down poetry via the myth of a dead poet in the dalliance at hand. And why not, Li Po is a marvelous figure to embrace and make use of in just such manner. Bartlett’s strength comes of her unabashed openness towards writing out her thoughts and actions. She isn’t one to shy away from laying explicit autobiographical tracings throughout the poem.
Whose Music Excels the Music of Birds

The news of her death came to me late
as if from a messenger who, lost in his wandering,
                                    forgets all text.
You broke it to me over the phone at work
during one of our fights,
                                    our shameless meanderings
as to whether we did or did not love each other,
                  the fact of a lingering ammunition,
a second kind of ending that day.
          I was trapped in the moment—
a toss-up between the brutality of movement
                  and the impossibility of stillness—
the suddenly malevolent Christmas shoppers
                                a swarm of glowing distractions,
the noise of their footsteps and chatter
a seemingly violent music. It disturbed them,
                  this dangerous experiment against composure,
                                    a girl running past
in the too obvious display of grief.

Complete in my autobiography of dirty feathers
                  I fled to exit,
                                    beating wings inside out,
toward the snow I somehow knew
was beginning for the first time that winter
                  to collect on the statues,
the art trying to fend off its white heaviness.

I sat down in it as if attempting
                  through my own body
                                    to imprint the cold record of hers.
I remembered the footage of a young poet
in cat-eye glasses describing her Peggy Guggenheim Foundation
                                    washer and dryer,
hands twisted downward full of smoke
                                    with a room of casual onlookers
watching as she sat at her typewriter composing a music that
                                                   excels the music of birds;
                                    a language not able to make
the usual distinction
                  between the words and the singing.

To hazard a guess at the identity of the “young poet / in cat-eye glasses,” both Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton seem obvious contenders, although a Google search for images of them doesn’t turn up a shot of either wearing eyeglasses. Of course, a woman of their day wouldn’t wish to be photographed wearing eyeglasses. So it goes unanswered, yet again raises the question of whether or not Bartlett is writing the New Confessionalism. There is no need to bother with labeling it, but surely the single significant criticism of her poetry is the over-reliance given to falling back upon narrative, and the narrative is personal to the core.

Jennifer Scappettone writes from the far opposite corner of the spectrum from Bartlett. Her chapbook BEAUTY [IS THE NEW ABSURDITY] is decidedly experimental, seeking to compress, and at moments indeed crush out, the personal, in so far that it is to be seen as implicit statement of poetry. As she asks, “Can one in honesty hearken to some bed that held the old scene in dewy harmony, or has it all been ocean.” (“Note”) There is irony here. These pages of heavily inked lines between which lines of poetry float, as if seen through open venetian blinds make evident by physical presentation alone the “Beauty” addressed. She’s asking for repulsion.

Scappettone wants to tear back the veil of paradise, painted castles afloat in pinkish air, epic fields of harmonious ocean swells to be swept asunder, or rather simply ignored. The facade that any life is drives her to declare [Editor's Note: The excerpt below is featured within a block of underlined lines, something not replicable in Blogger format]:
                                                      omnicorporal beauty you must

                  swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber,                   at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week

                  whose frequency makes of ugliness a duty til Daybreak

we will be capsule sleepers fleeing prison buzz amidst maws of glass sung after all

                                    hims, & our etceteras own                   allowed

There is beauty here, isn’t there? “Our etceteras” do indeed “own.” After all, isn’t the absurdity located precisely within our various approach. Willing future cadavers that we are, tossing off poems, getting each time no closer to what fatefully (or perhaps just finally) is just what it is: ourselves, merrily at it, that thing we are.

Jennifer, please write more poetry and love it for the thing it is—Beauty.

Heidi Lynn Staples’ Dog Girl treads ground between Bartlett and Scappettone.

alone is the woman on the surface and alone is the woman on the edge alone the profound water; but most alone when one body knocks together two persons,
and the tale of death is told.

She isn’t against tackling the abstract and nailing it down with emotion, pinning “beauty” up and pointing out the silliness of it, yet all the while backing an eternal desire for the nature these notions are built to entertain. She runs her own show and delights in doing so.

What makes a man, makes amends,
She said, as she pooled the deep’s up higher.
What makes a woman, wakes the ends
Of the birth, he said, as he pooled balm.

She said, as she pooled the deep’s up higher,
I don’t corpulent your spray, you’re a purse
Of mirth, he interrupted, as he pooled balm.
Of nit! I was engorging Thursday, she said.

I don’t corpulent your spray, you’re a parse
Of good nude, he interrupted again, of lark!
Of nuke! I was engorging Thursday, she said.
He jumbled stout of dread, pooling the deep’s fifth hum,

Of good jukes, he repeated, of lark!
She didn’t have dawn dawning close. Sheep bees and a fly.
He galumphed brackish in head, pooling the deep’s lover her,
Speak seems, he said. Uvula va-va-voom, she said.

Sound is her forte. Some readers may think of Stein or find it overly cutesy. These anonymous are encouraged to read the book twice through at least, and then some…Staples piles weight into her measure. Listen for awhile and get yourself some.

o yes, i have strummed love
flung lit spin and shout, bright clasped rain
yes, my favor friend a true-love
and none day we’ll be fright as lain.

o once up in a spree, eyes met a true-love
i gasped him if i may
behold beheld become opposite of grave
o met was a whole nude day.

he spelt with me attention, fold me up
and dawn, he’s how i burnt thru speak
my fond, o before wife looked so grave
now he of he’ll not let life sleep.

he as rave of grave,
he as a lep of sleep,
and of lep of his lips,
of lips kiss of kissing seek.

not of seek sick, of lips
slip up. yes, it’s us strong
has an always, o lisp of lips,
i of you as the dock is longing.

yes, once up in a spree, we of green
a bout, hour’s reelings, wind and a walk
we risked, lit as quiet a seen.
he said, let’s grow flower a little stalk,

lover this way, he all lit me love,
and i remember it too with this very decay;
he said, let’s grow flowers here, love
together till our days away.

Staples lives in Ireland. Her work busies the ear in picking up haunting vibrations of pure joy and it is impossible not to suspect much of this she owes to the hum of eternity alive in the romanticized voice of the Irish. As Robert Creeley puts it, upon discovering his name is Irish,
and the heavens opened, birds sang,
and the trees and the ladies spoke
with wondrous voices. The power of the glory
of poetry—was at last mine.
(“Theresa’s Friends”)

These poems are at play with, and in, the language itself. They hum, burp, bump, bop, strum, fly along; and what else would any one have them do. Poetry is for pleasure, wherever it is to be found, it’s the very thing necessitates the reader onwards.

1. You play your mean bicker too proud. It really runs on my verve.

2. When you sleep, I watch you and think about ruining a wife as cross as your juggler.

3. To fold neatly and put your dirty socks back in your stock war.

4. To halve and to hound; there’s a big difference between.

5. That sounds too carps.

6. You’re not wall as dad.

7. Did I ever tell you that I/new when we wed weed weave flowers gather flowers ever?

8. If you had a sun, would heat be the center of your epic thirst?

9. Or the sinner of your shun as perverse?

10. Or the son your always haunted.

There’s aplenty in DOG GIRL to return to. Staples brings out a collection that tackles head on what it is a book of poems should be and do, insisting that each page be ready to stand up and be reckoned with. The only slight bits here (often colored so by title choice) are but seemingly so.

There once was a white with a mouth
And a caul with a north for a south
The cold snapped err its ice
White as laboratory mice—
A quiet thrall bid a sprout broken

This is a calendar of talent. There’s little leftover to be asked of it.

It’s not too much to assert that Brenda Coultas’ new collection The Marvelous Bones of Time easily assumes position as a new classic of American Literature. Comprised of, as Coultas herself frames it, excavations and explanations, this new work is concerned with people and place. The first half, The Abolition Journal, looks back at the historical record concerning abolition in the 19th century in and around where she grew up in southern Indiana along the Kentucky border while also weaving in contemporary commentary, gossip, and jokes. Coultas writes by assemblage, situating the reader by offering up her own perspective of the area (both historical and current) drawn from numerous sources, personal and public.
Looking from the free state
there is a river then a slave state
Turn around and there is a slave state,
a river
then a free state

I was born between the free side and the slave side, my head
crowning on the bridge. I fully emerged in an elevator traveling
upward in a slave state. I have shopped in the slave state and eaten
barbecue there. I have walked along the riverbank in the slave
state and looked out at the free state.

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.

Question: are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?

This is writing that seeks to discover in the words asked a further questioning which points ever outward. Coultas is mapping out a story but isn’t sealing it off with closure. The poetic identity laid out is one that invites the reader to be active participant and take up where Coultas leaves off. The “I” here is amply spread around.
The palmist heard many voices, a mournful ocean coming from
                                                      my right hand
                                    And felt a deep sadness.

She heard,
“I went to the underworld and this is what I found”
She heard,
“I have her body.”

                  Then I heard the word and the word was “Autonomy.”

The autonomy is to be shared. Coultas is seeking the personal in order to charge it with universal appeal. By sorting out her own understanding of the historical record via her experience with it, as both text and lived fact, she opens the larger opportunity for a cultural sorting. At times she punctuates the exchange of perspectives with cutting humor.

There was a war between the Kentuckians and the Hoosiers. The
Kentuckians were throwing firecrackers and the Hoosiers were
lighting them and throwing them back.

There was a Hoosier fishing on one bank and a Kentuckian fish-
ing on the other. The Hoosier was catching lots of fish while the
Kentuckian had none. The Kentuckian said “I’m not getting any
bites over here.” The Hoosier said “Come over and try this side,
I’ll shine my flashlight beam and you can walk over on it.” The
Kentuckian said, “No way, I’ll get halfway there and you’ll turn
it off.”

Have you heard about the new state farm?
They put a fence around Kentucky.

Why do ducks fly upside down over Kentucky?
There’s nothing worth shitting on.

Do you know why they built a bridge across the Ohio River?
So Kentuckians can swim across in the shade.

The unsettling history of the battle over abolition may appear to remain inescapable for people caught up in the past as much as in the present, but appearance shouldn’t completely decide the matter. Although old resentments die hard they do undergo alteration, Coultas looks at the idea of boundaries, revealing how superficial they are and meaningless given time.
As we land, the only African American passenger on board tells
us he was born and raised in Los Angeles and brought his family
to Kentucky to visit friends, and they refused to leave. He plans
on commuting to see his family every vacation until his retirement
from the post office in a few years. “Owensboro,” he said.
“Heaven,” he said.

Owensboro is right at the border along the river separating Kentucky and Indiana. The ravages of the past may remain for those with direct ties to the land, but for the outsider coming in with fresh ideas all that is seen are the upside qualities to benefit from.

In the second half of the book, A LONELY CEMETARY, Coultas explores the always burgeoning Americana territory of ghost stories. She’s diving deep into familiar territory culturally but a somewhat unusual realm for poetry. These are not Jack Spicer’s poem-producing ghosts but rather ones from off television shows about ghost chasers and true-life encounters with the supernatural. These spooks fly about the pages, at times deserving of a scene of camp-fire telling.

Robert told me this story, but he can’t remember if he overheard
or dreamed it. Every day for a month a butcher knife, the old-
fashioned kind, appeared stuck into a tree in the same position. At
first, the neighbors removed the knife so that neighborhood kids
wouldn’t play with it, but in the morning another knife would
appear. There was an oily substance on the blades and there were
random letters carved into the handles. At the end of the month,
the knives stopped appearing. That weekend four neighbors were
stabbed to death. A homicide detective working the case heard
the story. He thought there might be a clue in the weird letters on
the handles, so he collected the knives and found that the letters
made up the names of the four victims.

Coultas delves into the everydayness of the supernatural. Her presentation is exceedingly fine in removal of the superficial and its refusal to allow the poet’s own commentary any excessive intrusion. Coultas undertakes an investigation that is of interest to her, uncovering all she is able to come across and reporting back her finds in the form of poetry. With subtlety and great care that the language be precise, she offers the stories she has collected with the supposition that perhaps they be heard and entertained for the evidence they are: pointers toward a fleeting world hovering just about our own.

The following fourth of July, Dave told me this. Because of
Hurricane Katrina, he, his pregnant wife, and his young daughter
moved to Natchez to stay with relatives. Unsure how long they
would have to stay after the storm, they rented a house about a
mile from his wife’s aunt and uncle. Dave and his family, plus his
mother-in-law, moved in. On the first night, Dave fell asleep
holding hands with his wife and daughter, grateful that he had his
family with him, safe for the moment. In the middle of the night
he awoke and saw a ghost of a man dressed in pants, shirt and tie,
sixties or seventies style, walking up the stairs to their bedroom.
                  Even though the ghost was fully materialized, Dave knew
that this was not a living person, and suspects that the ghost
enacted this ritual every night because it recalled his daily return
home during his mortal life. When the ghost realized that Dave
could see him, he was shocked. In his mind, Dave told the ghost
that he must leave, that he (Dave) had his own problems, serious
ones. The ghost became very sad; the intensity of the sadness akin
to Dave’s despair.
                  As the ghost left, Dave pleaded with him to come back, say-
ing that they could work something out. Dave followed him out
the door to a grassy patch across the driveway. There was a shim-
mering oval in the grass; floating within the oval was a knife. The
ghost walked into the oval and was slowly absorbed.
                  The next day, Dave was in his car drinking coffee, listening
to the radio for news from New Orleans. He met his new neigh-
bor, an older lady, who told him that the house he was renting had
been empty for years. She recalled the former occupants as the
perfect family: a doctor, his wife and daughter, nothing unusual
about them except for the doctor, whom she described as having
an aura of sadness surrounding him.
                  Later, Dave found out there had been a shooting in the
house and the doctor had been badly hurt. He did, however, sur-
vive. The shooting was ruled a self-inflected accident. There were
rumors that his daughter had had a drug problem and that she or
her mother had shot him. But what role did the shining weapon
play? What message did the doctor wish to communicate?

As with any good ghost story, there are more questions than answers. Coultas leaves the reader delightfully scared and bemused, startling expectations and never imposing anything in excess. Her humor suffuses the book in a glow of warm bits, “I asked the cards if my poem would be successful. The reader said, ‘who is that man with the dark glasses and pot belly? Is there any reason why I should be seeing Allen Ginsberg over your shoulder?’” She brings poetry into the world and the world into poetry.

Coultas saves American poetry from itself by embodying America itself. She is an answer to this country’s 19th century masters: Dickinson, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville. If you don’t adore the work you are not only wrong but are on the major shit list of all non-Bush Americans. This is our poet. Wake the fuck up.

                  I have only
the poet’s arsenal
with which to build this
hope chest.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at the library of USF. Poems recently appeared in Cannibal, Morning Train, and One Less Magazine. At present, working on a collaborative collection of re-writing each other's re-writes of other people's poems with Micah Ballard. Lots of walking and talking.


EILEEN said...

Another view of Brenda Coultas' THE MARVELOUS BONES OF TIME is offered by Pamela Hart in this issue, GR# 10, at

Cathy said...

the poet Bartlett mentions is probably Denise Levertov