Valerie Coulton, The Cellar Dreamer
Publisher: Apogee Press
2007, 75 pages, paperback, $14.95
in Making Your Own Days, the late Kenneth Koch describes the malleable nature of language. He writes, “Given such a medium it is hard to imagine not wanting to play with it, to experiment to see what might be said with it, to take its powers, as it were, into one’s own hands.”
To read The Cellar Dreamer is to be reminded of these words. Valerie Coulton plays with language in magical ways. Her pages come alive in the way a child’s eyes come alive when looking up at the sky and noticing clouds for the first time-and then noticing the shapes of clouds, those rabbits or row boats that we used to imagine. Coulton imagines like this, weaving silence together with sound, moving words across the page to make the mundane sparkle:
I had my own room
in the old house blown
at brick’s edge
In another poem by another poet, the rhymes of broom/room, own/blown, and now/how might seem forced and overdone; however, here Coulton offsets her rhymes with space. She pushes past the caesurae, calling to mind Charles Olson’s concept of “projective verse,” suspending the words “blown” and “how” at the end of their lines. What’s unique about Coulton’s use of this contemporary-and hackneyed-poetic effect is that she successfully combines it with the more Romantic technique of rhyme.
Divided into three sections, The Cellar Dreamer moves from poetry to prose poetry and back to poetry. Most of the first section, titled “some where,” feels simultaneously familiar and strange, in the way Lorine Niedecker’s poems do: Coulton takes the everyday-brooms, baskets, shoes, tablecloths-and mixes it with life on the farm-hogs, corn, burlap, fresh milk-to form a new kind of utterance. Suddenly, the ordinary becomes surreal, as in the following:
ache of shoes designed
for dancing. context=
sex of the farm-warm weather
ruts & shudders:
In the second section of the collection, “The Orange Window,” Coulton’s prose poems take us on a journey, consisting of dreams and letters and conversations. Most of these pieces end with a snap shot: “tied to his chest, a tiny vial of rainwater with a silver stopper”; “The daughter wore a ribbon around her neck at dinner: black velvet, tied at the back, no doubt by her mother’s hands”; “The lilies in her free hand caught the light, momentarily illuminating my own face in the milliner’s glass.” These final images help to ground what can be a difficult-to-follow narrative. Even though the poems in the second section differ in form compared to the poems in the first section, strangeness ties them together, as we see here in “Absolute”:
Her face turned to stone, slowly and abruptly at the same time. Rivulets of water left a salt signature, white against marbled charcoal. Lying beside her, I waited for the inevitable horsemen and looked up at our sky: relentless, familiar, empty.
Coulton’s collection teems with moments like this. Inspired by the book Blue,The History of Color by Michel Pastoureau, the poems in the final section, called “blaue augen,” breathe color into the strange. Take these lines from “the miraculous draft of fishes”:
of soft seeming stone
time’s uneven stitch:
men of ash
Coulton’s rendering “of soft seeming stone” is so beautiful that it begs us to stop reading right there and be satisfied. But the strangeness pulls us forward…you don’t stop reading. The stone meets the eye-and from there, words tumble, continuously, until the final page of the collection, which ends with “an invitation to dream / dyed with indigo / boat sails / miners, workers, slaves // attached by rivers / to the sky.”
This is one invitation you won’t ignore. In it, Coulton reminds us of the simple pleasures of language-the way a “building has eyes” or how there are “breadcrumbs in the trees.” Anything is possible in poetry, and Coulton’s work exemplifies this fact. Her poems are so full of energy, so fresh in their attention to sound that they won’t leave you. Her words echo even after The Cellar Dreamer wakes.