The Marvelous Bones of Time
Brenda Coultas
Coffee House Press, $15.00 (paper)


“The spirit is a bone,” Hegel says of the inextricability of material and metaphysics: the spirit, whether of a person or of an era, is wound tightly around the hard stuff of the physical world. In this sense, the title of Brenda Coultas’s new collection is fitting. Each of the book’s two sections is preoccupied with ephemeral, numinous features of human experience and the concrete objects that bear their residues. At first glance, the opening section, “The Abolition Journal,” seems to make room for history as well, as Coultas interrogates her own geographical-genetic inheritance for traces of her individual identity. Raised in Indiana with strong ties in Kentucky and Illinois, the poet revisits the lore of those states and their surroundings, wondering, “are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” Ultimately, this collision of histories feels a bit too subjective, the history of racial struggle laminated onto a history of Anglo-American roots in a way that leaves lingering questions about the justifiability (and maybe the propriety) of the endeavor. Coultas’s previous experiments in “public character,” in her first book Handmade Museum, raise similar questions, but they also answer them with an essayistic élan that this project doesn’t quite manage. By contrast, the second section of Marvelous Bones, “A Lonely Cemetery,” is utterly absorbing. What might have been a rather banal dabbling in paranormal spectacle ends up touching the quick of our human fascination with persistently inexplicable phenomena; “The Robert Investigations,” in particular, is truly chilling. The pairing of these two distinct projects becomes easier to understand as one proceeds through the book. Both are “Excavations and Explanations” (as the book’s subtitle has it) of versions of America’s haunted history, and there can be no question concerning the sincerity of the poet’s assays in either case. Nevertheless, the feeling of arrival in “A Lonely Cemetery” does overshadow the (ironically) more speculative “Abolition Journal.” While the spirit of the book is indeed marvelous throughout, it feels most bonelike in the second half.