“Valerie Coulton's Passing World Pictures

Rusty Morrison

Valerie Coulton is a poet intent upon the material presence of language. She brings our attention to the heft and sway of words freed from being simply functionaries in the fiefdom of language transmission and opens us to their enigmatic moods, their dalliances of sound and shape. Her deft management of page space, and her fearlessness in the face of logic’s seeming occlusion, foreground a word’s tonally sensual presence. Hers is a poetry in which we feel language breathe — expanding with meaning’s excesses, freed from the proscriptions of our social/cultural uses and practices. 

In Passing World Pictures, Coulton infuses her own spare, sensate choices of language with phrases from a 1946 pre-war guidebook to Japanese culture, which was written for western tourists visiting Japan. We’ve all experienced the humor and poignancy of meanings lost or strangely altered in translations by non-native speakers who are not fully fluent in the subtleties of English, and Coulton occasionally plays upon such feelings. But Coulton does not focus upon what logic is lost in such translation, rather she is adept at using the gaps to find glimpses of what transpires outside the trance of our particular language — the trance which holds each of us within our culture’s paradigmatic sway. With this poet, we enter language’s flush and copious foreignness, catch it in the act of its shifting difference. It is as if Coulton were opening 

a box with divisions 
until later times
and hung through the wearer’s sash 

By embracing the strangeness of such seemingly simple, direct diction, we begin to develop a sixth sense for apprehending what passes otherwise unseen among the “world pictures” we believe our speaking creates, glimpses of what we might otherwise ignore  

for polishing a nipple 
in the small space available 
between this word and the next 

a “small space,” but large enough for us to encounter within it all the immediacy and evanescence of our “passing world.” Coulton demonstrates a Mallarmé-ian acuity for balancing phrases upon the page’s expanse in poised receptivity to that enigmatic “passing world.”

Such acuity also appears in the work of poets like Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser whose placement of language upon the page disrupts the camouflage of typical grammatical sense, exposing what otherwise lies hidden behind the forward motion of typical lineation. As Bruce Andrews suggests when discussing such alternative awareness — “Atmospherically: what surrounds words may be more readily, and satisfyingly perceived than an iron cage of connection . . .” (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, 33). 

But I am not suggesting that Coulton’s is a poetics which ignores the presence in discourse of that “iron cage of connection.” Many of her phrases point toward rhetorics of meaningful connection ranging from sexual politics to the search for transcendence. But Coulton engages this array of sociological and metaphysical issues using language which we encounter surprisingly, sensually, as if “hung through a wearer’s sash . . .” Do not try to tie these ideas too tightly to the logic of intellectual study. Instead, Coulton would ask us to wear these poems loosely knotted, to move with their fluidity, so as to experience both a sensate shock and delight in their  instrument’s stolen belly

of all supernatural
wish women
robe of feathers
bronze, tulle, satin

in making various objects


delectable seaweed

Coulton’s is a poetics rich with all manner of the “delectable” — one finds it in the sensory yield of her language’s referents, but most potently, most “joy”-fully in her relish of words themselves, their material resonances and sonorous echoings between and beyond the bars of the iron cage we make of syntax. With Coulton, there are alternatives to such confinement; a sentence’s seeming inescapability might open into

an alley 

of fallen lanterns 

H.D. (now famously) said to Marianne Moore, “I can’t write unless I am an outcast.” Coulton gives us the sense of an outcast’s experience — that of looking in upon an otherness of mores and meanings. We feel the friction in the rub of otherness against otherness, of one language against another, of one culture against another culture’s conventions — a friction that sparks, consuming rote expectations in the fire of writing. “Our minds, all of our minds,” says H.D. “are like dull little houses . . . Outside is a great vineyard and grapes and rioting and madness and dangers.” With Coulton, we enter a quieter, but no less fierce “rioting” of difference, a

dried river
stuffed with paper  
eating notes
to cure drought

roughly translated

I have disappeared

We emerge from such “roughly translated” language intuitively conversant with the “disappeared” “I” and filled with such hungers which “cure drought” and create a fertile undermine of the overly ordering mind. In the fecundity of Coulton’s spare language, we find ourselves traveling a translation beyond logic upon

unaccustomed legs and spine
plush interior
folded papers
beautiful and white

Bio: Rusty Morrison publishes Omnidawn Press and is co-editor of the journal 26

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