PAMELA HART Reviews
The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations by Brenda Coultas
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)
As the title suggests, this collection is two books that take up history, memory and ghosts as they exist in “objects of the earth,” as Coultas writes. Both books seek to excavate and explain. The first book, which looks like poetry and sounds sometimes like reportage, looks at the poet’s ancestry by traveling the back roads, digging through the dumpster to understand who she is and where she came from. Interestingly, the second book, a more traditionally organized series of stories about ghosts, monsters and UFOs, ruminates around the idea that history can be known through mythology and folk tales.
So the spine of the book is story, narrative -- first via poetry in the section titled The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County) and the second, titled A Lonely Cemetery, via myth. Poetry serves the first section because it allows Coultas to muse and wander off the beaten path as she pieces together her family and looks for the answer to the question she poses early on, “are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” Coultas, who received the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Faber First Book Award for her book A Handmade Museum, was born in Kentucky, “between the free side and the slave side,” thus the specter of slavery hovers like another kind of ghost in Coultas’ investigation. The second book explores how history can be revealed through the myth-making genre of the ghost story. This collection of tales gathered by Coultas is another kind of excavation. And here Coultas introduces us to stuff of myth -- characters and places that are quirky and vivid. One of my favorites is the Librarium, “a columbarium where book-shaped urns sat on enormous bookshelves…This is a very good resting place for a poet,” writes Coultas. These paranormal narratives serve several purposes. They’re quite different from the poems, and yet they illustrate what Coultas has been up to throughout the book. As she writes of her “rough, crazy quilt,” book, “I thought to loosen it all, to pull the thread/let the rags fall.” That is indeed Coultas’s impulse -- to dig , to loosen and to expose, not in grand places but at the edges of the ordinary. “The city dump is my memoir,” she observes. As good a place as any to uncover the bones of family and community narrative.
Pamela Hart, a former journalist, is writer in residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she works as a teaching artist. Her chapbook, The End of the Body, was published in 2006. Her work, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published in qarrtsiluni, BigCityLit.com, Rattapallax and Kalliope and is forthcoming in The Cortland Review. Read her blog, A Walk Around the Lake, at pamelahart.blogspot.com