Cover Girls

Go ahead and judge new poetry by its packaging

Brenda Coultas
A Handmade Museum
Coffee House Press

Monica Youn
Barter
Graywolf Press

I'm sorry, but there's too damn much poetry. I'm not saying that's a bad thing--although it may well be--but it is daunting. And I say this as someone who can honestly state that poetry has played a major role in rewiring my brain over the years, for better or worse. The problem is that so many people who might well proclaim themselves lovers of poetry--or even poets--are analogous to the sort of people whose record collections are dominated by what radio programmers call "classic rock." They like poetry, sure, but they're still spending most of their available time playing catch-up with all the dead giants and obscurities while the bookstore shelves continue to fill up with the work of largely ignored and often indistinguishable new voices. It's the same problem most casual jazz fans have: Who has time to wade through the racks of all that new product when there's still so much truly immortal stuff that they haven't yet heard?

Poetry has always been an insider's game, of course, a world of starving artists, marginal cliques, and the smallest but most passionate of cults. The dilemma for even those who care is how the hell to break into that fiercely insular world. When you go to the poetry section of a bookstore, where do you even start?

Well, if you have time on your hands, you simply browse. You pluck volumes from the shelves and peruse the jacket copy or skim the contents. It's a lie, of course, that you can't judge a book by its cover, particularly now that so many publishers devote so much space and attention to carefully pimping their product on every inch of available cover space. You can study the carefully chosen author photos and read the usually brief biographies, for instance, and try to determine whether a particular poet is someone who might speak to your experience or at the very least foster the sort of infatuation that the cult of poetry depends on.

The jacket biographies of two authors of recent collections offer excellent examples of this increasingly sophisticated art of telegraphing. On the back cover of Brenda Coultas's A Handmade Museum, we learn that before becoming a poet the author was "a farmer, a carny, a taffy maker, a park ranger, a waitress in a disco ballroom, and the second woman welder in Firestone Steel's history." Monica Youn, on the other hand, the author of Barter, offers us a markedly less effusive curriculum vitae, a brief but distinguished list of accomplishments and publication credits followed by this shot to the kidneys: "She currently lives in Manhattan, where she is an entertainment lawyer."

Now I don't know about you, but based entirely on that information I have a pretty good idea what sort of poets I'm likely to encounter between the pages of these books, and having now read both these collections I'm willing to gloat a bit and say that my suspicions were almost entirely borne out by the material.

These two very different poets are representative of age-old archetypes of the form: the peripatetic boho gypsy curious about the big, wide world and anxious to cram as much of her experience as humanly possible into her poems (Coultas, rambling in the footsteps of the fierce, burning Whitman). And at the other end of the spectrum, the coolly elegant careerist and aesthete (Youn--think Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, or John Ashbury).

Coultas is, on the surface, at least, the more interesting character of the two, if a bit suspect and a tad breathless. She's a flake, in both the best and worst senses of the word.

Youn is a more disciplined and musical poet, formal rather than funky, and terse where Coultas is effusive. Her poems require a little more attention, and are often more rewarding and surprising as a result.

Coultas's work is swept along on the writer's enthusiasm, and driven by experience. She is (literally, in fact) a scavenger and a dumpster diver, "obsessed with finding buried treasure." In the long piece that begins A Handmade Museum, "The Bowery Project," Coultas provides an exhaustive post-9/11 tour of a rapidly gentrifying New York City neighborhood, complete with a running inventory of found objects and random encounters with downtrodden local characters. She's a good reporter, with a sharp eye and a knack for listening to other people's stories. She also has a flair for deadpan absurdity ("I enjoy formerly living things in lab jars," she writes in "Inside the Weather"), and traffics in a sort of profound confusion--which is, come to think of it, as good a definition of surrealism as I can think of.

And yet, here and there she actually manages to define herself amid the confusion. Wonderful details and images float free of the sprawl of words, as in "Boy Eye":

My film began this way: A park on the East River on the 4th of July.
Three fat ladies on the ground doing leg lifts and laughing. I bought a Pepsi.

Or here, in "A Stick":

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