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Susan Briante

Coultas and Robertson Write the City
from Surface to Detritus, from I to We

paragraph 1

At least twice a year, I return to my parent’s home in New Jersey and inevitably seek escape from suburban monotony by traveling to New York City to visit friends. The NJ Transit train moves along a route known as the Northeast Corridor past Rahway, Linden, and Elizabeth and through Newark, the town where I was born.


Construction cranes, storage containers, wrecking balls, old factories with the windows boarded up or broken out, Newark is a landscape of fragment and refraction, the old Budweiser brewery, the airport, the basilica. I watch. I record. Where do I begin to write about this city? With a history of insurance brokers and leather salesmen? Or with the summer of 1967 when my mother sits at a kitchen table while news of rioting comes over the radio?

Coultas book cover


How does one approach the difficult and compelling task of writing “a poem of a person and a place” (as Olson so mildly put it) in the wake of (among others) The Maximus Poems, as well as (more recently) CD Wright’s stunning take on the Louisiana prison-industrial complex, One Big Self, or Kristin Palm’s recently published volume on Detroit, The Straits, just to name a few? There’s been no shortage of interesting thinking about investigative poetics.[1] And yet, this is no easy time to be a documentary filmmaker, poet or journalist. State censorship has reached what seems like an unprecedented high. The manipulation of language and information on the part of the current administration comes straight out of the pages of science fiction. One high-ranking Bush official chided New York Times reporter Ron Suskin for clinging to the “reality-based community” and went on to explain: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities...” [2]

Robertson book cover


So what is a poet stuck in the “reality based community” supposed to do? Especially when she finds herself staring out a train window at a city whose history of labor and race relations merits telling? I can think of two texts that manage to resist a crisis of “imperial” rhetoric and representation, while documenting the transformations of our cities: Brenda Coultas’s “ A Bowery Project” (from her collection A Handmade Museum) and Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture.[3] Both find ways to push against traditional documentary forms in order to produce work that interrogates a new cityscape as well as the documentary impulse itself.


To begin, both Coultas and Robertson explain that part of their impetus for writing was to record the transformation of the neighborhood or the city they call home at a time of expedited change. In an introduction to “The Bowery Project,” Coultas writes:


I live a block from this section and travel through it daily. My intent was not to romanticize the suffering or demonize the Bowery or its residents, but rather to observe the changes the Bowery was currently undergoing and to write about my own dilemma and identification as a citizen one paycheck from the street (11).


For her part, Robertson explains in the acknowledgments:


In this period of accelerated growth and increasing globalizing economies, much of what I love about this city seemed to be disappearing. I thought I should document the physical transitions I was witnessing in my daily life, and in this way question my own nostalgia for the minor, the local, the ruinous; for decay (Acknowledgments).


Both focus on change and detritus. Both also seek to limit as well as probe their own investment in such a project: Coultas pledges to neither “romanticize” nor “demonize,” while Robertson seeks to “question her own nostalgia.” Both poets mimic and subvert traditional systems of knowledge. While Coultas seems to rewrite traditional ethnography, Robertson pushes against the universalism of modernist theory and manifesto. In the end, both map viable new routes in contemporary investigative poetics for a generation writing in the wake of postmodernism and against the challenges of contemporary documentary.


In a series of prose poems, Coultas documents the Bowery as well as her own experiments and interactions in the neighborhood. Coultas is both an actor and observer among the debris of her environs: participating in her own brand of dumpster diving, collecting stories from people on the street, giving tours of her and her husband’s tenement. The titles of her poems suggest that her methodology was not only experimental, but ethnographic: “An Experiment in Misery,” “Bowery Box of Wishes,” “Things I Found December 15, 2001,” “Sightings,” and “A Summary of a Public Experiment.” She explains in another poem: “This will be my museum. I’ll put all down here on the page, a portable museum of the 1980s and the 1990s on the Bowery” (“The Bowery Project. An Experiment in Public Character”).


Coultas’s work merits the designation “documentary poetics” or “investigative poetics” less for its inclination to “extend the document into the poem”[4] (although Coultas does use historical documents, referencing Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Mitchell Duneier’s The Sidewalk), than because it becomes a document in itself. Coultas records her environment. Ultimately, Coultas creates an example of what cultural critic James Clifford would call: “a modern ethnography of conjunctures.”[5] Here I’m quoting a phrase that Clifford used in his analysis of William Carlos Williams’ poem “For Elsie.” As you probably remember, in this poem Williams, a Puerto Rican American doctor in the New Jersey suburbs, grapples with what he calls “the pure products of America:” his part Native American maid, Elsie.


This grappling with self/culture/other constitutes a condition which Clifford calls the predicament of “ethnographic modernity.” Clifford explains: “ethnographic because Williams finds himself off center among scattered traditions” and modernity “since the condition of rootlessness and mobility he confronts is an increasingly common fate” (3). Clifford broadly defines ethnographic modernity as “diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from a standpoint of participant observation. In this expanded sense a poet like Williams is an ethnographer” (9).


Coultas’s predicament strikes me as entirely similar. She is both native of the neighborhood and yet has a different relationship to it than the indigent people with whom the neighborhood has been so frequently identified. Instead of relying on existing ethnographic documents written by someone who has come to observe the neighborhood — or resorting the language of urban development — Coultas uses an ethnographic model to generate her own documents, her own archive. For example, in the poem “Bum Stash: Early 21st Century,” Coultas records:


The lot had been emptied by the police/city who put up a new fence and padlock, took down the trees and crops, and replaced the soil with gravel. This year some crops pushed up again. Objects returned, this time under plastic, a long, low stick of furniture with nine drawers, one missing a yellow mustard color. ...

Later observed in secret, a man with magenta hair adding objects he found in the street....

Bum stash tore apart. Lean-to pushed over, same objects, but did the police or the magenta man tear it all down?


But this is only the start. Instead of allowing herself to be another mere observer recording the activities of the “Bowery Bum” (or a poet, such as Williams, observing and recording the condition of the other in order to shed some light on “us”), Coultas adopts and experiments with the kinds of strategies that the indigent men and women of her neighborhood have used to survive in an area slated for physical and demographic change: picking through garbage, observing and investigating what might be salvaged, an activity she records in such poems as “Sightings.”


Even when she takes the place of “mere observer” as in the poem “Bum Stash: Early 21st Century,” Coultas finds an opportunity to investigate her own process and list her own “stash” of possessions. Consider the last stanza of the poem (Note: the forward slashes appear in the original):


No one can write much nowadays because it takes money/ in the 70s people wrote all the time/ now we don’t have room to lay it all out, so I lay out a part at a time, pick them up and then lay some more...


The poem continues:


When my husband left, I though I could start to lay it out, move it around, until an alchemy took hold./ So I laid it all out: 2 super 8s, a 35mm, found photos, books of the Bowery, poetry, and there was lots of poetry./ Artifacts, flattened bottle caps, rusted cans, early tin cans, many interesting screws and bolts...


Eventually, the poem moves from observation to record the difficulties of concluding, of making her collection of artifacts speak. The poem ends: “I laid it all out/ started at it/ moved it/ talked to myself about it/ read it all again/ waited/ nothing happened./ I put it all back.”


The gesture works in two ways. First, it allows Coultas to “lay out” her own possessions just as she has been listing those she observed in the “bum stash” that opens the poem. She subjects herself to the same scrutiny that the subjects of her investigation receive. Ed Sanders advocates such a tactic in his Investigative Poetics where he suggests: “One useful method, if you find yourself preparing garbage grids [Sanders’ term for compiling data on a subject] and you want to MAINTAIN ACCURACY, is to prepare some garbage grids on YOURSELF” (29).[6] Second, the gesture lays bare the limits of observation, of recording data, even, of historical investigation if we are to take Coultas’s reference to “books on the Bowery” as a reference to Bowery histories. Despite this act of gathering research, Coultas confides “nothing happened;” she will not provide (or can find no way to provide) “conclusions” about the Bowery’s inhabitants or the neighborhood.


Again, I believe this hesitation mimics developments in the field of ethnography or what Clifford would call a “crisis of ethnographic authority.” As the issue of who has the authority to “speak for a group’s identity or authenticity” became apparent, Clifford notes that the practice of ethnography transformed from the “practice of interpreting distinct, whole ways of life” to “a series of specific dialogues, impositions, and inventions” (14).


Coultas furthers her subversion of the traditional ethnographic document and creates her own intervention by turning her very home into a “display” space. In the poem, “Tenement Tour,” Coultas describes opening up her Bowery apartment to tourists:


I wanted everyone to see how we lived and I had my own questions. Were we identical to other husbands and wives, to the other couples stacked above and beside us?...

Had to tell the tourists that tenement life was much better these days, we were nearly middle class and that only 2 people lived in these 4 rooms. That poor people couldn’t live in them anymore...Tenements are now expensive and the truly poor live in a worse kind of projects or in Queens while hobos and bums live in Rockaway beach...

So we wrote script, recorded it, and customers listened as they toured each room.


It is worth noting that Coultas feels compelled to tell these tourists that her living conditions are “much better” than those of previous tenants.


Ultimately, Coultas records observations but hesitates to impose a singular meaning (or worse, moral) on the plight of Bowery and its residents. Throughout the collection, Coultas reflects on her expectations for the project calling her poems “a portable museum,” as well as “a structure...forming a skeleton out of raw garbage transformed into beauty, maybe with something to say...”


In the poem, “A Summary of a Public Experiment,” Coultas writes: “My own tale is of walking and observing, of imagining.” Coultas’s desire to “imagine” allows her not only to deviate from traditional ethnographic models but from the path of the flaneur. Instead of “romanticizing” or “demonizing” Bowery inhabitants she underscores her affinities with them, mimics their behavior and ultimately imagines herself in their place while recognizing the limits to her sympathy. “I was not a homeless or passed out on the sidewalk, but maybe I was drunk on the Bowery once,” she begins the last stanza/paragraph of “A Summary of Public Experiment.” She continues: “I must have been drunk and fallen asleep and must have gotten a blanket or newspaper out of the trash and must have found a box and curled up in it.” She concludes by explaining “I might have made a home for the night...and I must have hid my face from people...and so although all this time I was living in full view of the public, nobody saw me.” The imagining becomes an act of deep sympathy, a call for action (especially for seeing), a recognizing of our own connections and complicity.


If Coultas writes in opposition to an ethnographic model, then Robertson writes from and against a model of modernist theory and manifesto. Throughout the 271 pages of lyric essays that make up Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Robertson writes in the collective voice of the office. The office makes declarations, proclamations: “Yet our city is persistently soft. We see it like a raw encampment a the edge of the rocks, a camp for a navy vying to return to a place that has disappeared” (15) or “Forget the journals, conferences, salons, textbooks, and media of dissemination. We say thought’s object is not knowledge but living. We do not like it elsewhere.” While the office speaks with, what Joyelle McSweeney called, a “Modernist brio,”[7] the focus of its interest and its declaration of intent seem to mock and ultimately undermine the kind of totalizing, universalist, top/down structure of traditional systems of control and/or inquiry. The office’s observations rest on the “soft” logic of the lyric: associative, observational, multi-referential — and ultimately subjective.


Robertson focuses on elements of the urban environment that normally go unnoticed, describing the overlooked: the city’s fountains (most of which appear in front of office buildings), blackberry bushes that overgrow structures adding surface (and thus receiving the office’s praise), a history of scaffolding, a study of the shack. Like Coultas, Robertson is an astute observer of the material city. Both focus on the vestiges of decay: dumpster or curbside garbage in the case of Coultas; a defaced plaque, a library with “bombed windows,” the abandoned buildings of a “defunct light-industrial district” in case of Robertson.


Unlike Coultas who pointedly focuses on the citizens of the Bowery, their interactions with the structures and forces of the neighborhood, and her relationship to them, Robertson offers few remarks on the citizens of Vancouver. She does not represent dialogue or interaction with them. Instead, the office proclaims its fascination with material observation: “The truly utopian act is to manifest current conditions and dialects. Practice description. Description is mystical” (16). But how can this be? On one hand, it recalls Sanders call to use investigative poetry to “describe every aspect of the historical present” as a subversive, revolutionary act. Yet Sanders’ work describes agents of history, flows of power and money, etc. How do the objects that Robertson chooses to describe constitute this potential for “utopian” discourse? If we take the city to be a place of shock producing distraction, in which space becomes organized in order to facilitate consumption, as Walter Benjamin suggests, then the act of merely noticing, recording and describing “current conditions and dialects,” especially those that exist beyond or in spite of “increasing globalizing economies” can be — if not “mystical” — than an act of resistance.


While Robertson lists a wide range of sources for her ruminations from Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, she also includes “The Theory of the Dérive and other Situationist Writings.” The office’s works and walks might assume their mystic power, their utopian ideals in their shared goals with the Situationists, who believed that by drawing attention to the affective dimensions of cityscapes that they might reconstruct social space. Like Robertson’s office the Situationists sought “residual and interstitial” spaces of the city in search of elements that might be salvaged in a reconstruction. Still, the Situationists did not get very far.


I believe the subversive — even potentially progressive — nature of Robertson’s office comes from more than just its thematic choices or theories, but from its grammatical positioning. Instead of inserting the “I” of the participant/observer or attempting to render an auto-ethnography, Robertson writes most frequently in the collective “we” of the office, an act that mimics the manifestos of the Situationists. The use of the pronoun “we” creates an interesting effect. It allows the office to speak with collective authority, and, at its worst, from an implied universal point of view. But Robertson’s “we” possesses awareness of its own ideology, perspective, and limitations. In fact, they describe themselves as “modern,” “outmoded remainders,” “maligned and arrogant” and a plurality who ignores “the crowd that we resemble” (254), who presents one another with “looted images” (250) as well as makes purchases “with a father’s money” (253). Ultimately Robertson defines the “we” as representative of a “lyric class.” “How like the lyric we had been” (232). It is this awareness that forces readers to proceed cautiously through the decadent, even extravagant, positions that the office often espouses, in a way that becomes much more difficult when we read the Situationists’ similarly decadent proclamations. For example, their “Never work” doctrine is nice work if you can get it but an increasingly untenable position for even artists of an intellectual middle class.


Consider Robertson’s “Playing House: A Brief Account of the Idea of the Shack.” Written as a series of numbered sections, the work traces a history of the shack from the earliest architectural theorists (Vitrius, Alberti) to Rousseau, Thoreau — even Janis Joplin:


A shack describes the relationship from minimum to freedom… The freedom from accoutrement popularly stands for liberty. Here we sing along with Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee,” and we understand our youth as “pre-economic myth” (178–179)


The equating of the shack’s poverty with freedom only makes sense under the condition that “pre-economic” shack living is a choice. It’s a moment in the text when, as critic Jennifer Scappetone notes, the reader “winces” before perhaps becoming cognizant of her own “complicity” in such characterizations becoming aware of her own pertinence to Robertson’s “lyric class.”[8] But self-awareness seems a fundamental trait of the office — and one that saves Robertson from simply duplicating modernist universalism.


In the “Seven Walks” that represent the final part of the collection, the “we” begins to dissolve into an “I”. What once appeared to represent an institution, a generation or class begins to sound more like a pair of lovers, an “I” and her guide: “Must we recede into the wild spending of intelligence. Might we go to dinner and have a fight upon a little sofa?” (241) Here, the collective voice of what was once authority narrows to a voice of intimacy, and the city becomes registered as a site of “affect” as the narrator confesses a desire “to notice the economies that could not appear in money” (250).


Here, too — for the first time — the “we” records the movement of the city’s inhabitants: a soldier, a womanly boy, a group of “slender bachelors,” “bridge urchins,” a “she-theorist.”


By the last of these walks, the “we” seems contrite, practically confessional. “We wanted only to document the present” (268). It later explains: “Given inevitable excess, irreversible loss and unreserved expenditure, how were we to choose and lift the components of intelligibility from junk?” (269) And finally remarks:


Flippantly we would issue implausible manifestos... When there was a call for images we would fan through the neighborhood constructing our documents...Of course then we ourselves were the documents; we acquired a fragility (269–270).


The dissolution of the collective pronoun seems to indicate the dissolution of the office itself. Now, their own statements seem “implausible” and their methodology flimsy. With the failure of its mission to document the city, the office leaves behind only a document of itself. It is a predicament that is analogous to the discourse of the Situationists. By the early 1960s Situationist Guy Debord would admit to the subjective limits of the psychogeographies (affective maps of cities) and the reduction of their revolutionary impulses to self-revelation:


The sectors of a city are to some extent decipherable. But the personal meaning they have had for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents.[9]


And yet isn’t that just what much of modernist documentation was about, and why ultimately — as Clifford points out and Robertson enacts — we inevitably all dissolve to the “I” which despite its own instability, constructedness, even fallibility remains the only place from which one can reasonably speak. I’m not advocating some kind of radical (or even mainstream) return to subject-centered poems. Nor do I believe that the “I” / “we” in Robertson’s office should be read as autobiographical. It’s just that when a subject ethically interrogates her own position and ideology as observer, the documentary act becomes more meaningful. In strikingly different ways, Coultas and Robertson enact that awareness (a gesture also evidenced in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as well as Wright’s One Big Self).


The 1930s have been described as a time of heightened desire to chronicle, document and archive the American experience. It was a decade that produced Dorothea Lange’s and Walker Evan’s photography, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” and Agee’s study on sharecroppers, the archives of the Farm Security Administration and the Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion. Perhaps, as historian Warren I. Susman has suggested, this modernist documentary impulse served as a temporary salve against ravages of the depression and institutionalized racism that plagued the country.[10]


Today’s interest in documentary or investigative poetics may as well be brought on by the challenges of this particular political and economic moment. And yet, there are great differences between the documentary of 1930s and today. As Shoshana Wechsler points out, the 1930s documentary was marked by “an objectivist sensibility — a collective infatuation with a whole spectrum of conflicting theories and practices, each claiming the mantle of ‘objectivity.’” [11] Both Agee’s and Rukeyser’s work enact this struggle. While we’ve come a long way in realizing the limits or impossibility of “objective” documentation, the desire to investigate, the need for facts, images, and documents seems even more pressing. Four thousand soldiers have died in Iraq, and most of us have yet to see one photograph of a flag draped coffin. Published images of dead Iraq civilians are bound to have a photojournalist removed from his or her military escort or worse. The politics of corporatism have allowed developers to decimate large swaths of our urban neighborhoods in the name of “investment,” turning communities into out-door shopping malls and making the availability of low-income housing a thing of the past. Documentary filmmakers and writers, as well as our investigative poets, face not only a crisis of representation, but also a full-scale assault against language and our ability to document the realities of the “new empire.”


We need to work to make seen that which is unseen to go beyond the surface, to lay bare the mechanics behind the gaze itself, and delineate the views being afforded — as well as what is left out of the frame. Coultas and Robertson map new routes through the guise of objectivity, as well as the universalist claims of certain discourses — corporate as well as aesthetic — in our own grappling with poems about person and place. In unique ways, they help to make us aware of our own complicity in the web of relations that produce these new urban spaces, so that these place might be seen as something more than what is glimpsed from a train.


[1] I prefer Ed Sanders’ term “investigative poetics” to “documentary poetics” because of it emphasizes the notion of inquiry and speculation, fundamental to the lyric, rather than a recording of some objective reality.

[2] Ron Suskin, “Faith Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times. (October 17, 2004).

[3] Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003) and Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Clear Cut Press, 2003). All citations from these editions will be noted in the text.

[4] See Muriel Rukeyser’s remarks on her “The Book of the Dead.”

[5] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Harvard University Press, 2002). All further citations from this edition will be noted in the text.

[6] Ed Sanders, Investigative Poetics, (City Lights, 1976). Clifford would remind us: “The time is past when privileged authorities could routinely “give voice” (or history) to others without fear of contradiction” (7).

[7] Joyelle McSweeney, “The Constant Critic.” A link to McSweeney’s review is here:

[8] Jennifer Scappetone, “Site Surfeit: Office for Soft Architecture Makes the City Confess,” The Chicago Review (51:4/52:1), pp. 70–75.

[9] Guy Debord, “The Critique of Separation” trns. by Ken Knabb. A link to this transcript is here:

[10] Warren I. Susman, "The Thirties." The Development of an American Culture. Ed. Stanley Coben and Lorman Ratner. (Prentice, 1970.) 179–218.

[11] Shoshana Wechsler, “A Ma(t)ter of Fact and Vision: The Objectivity Question and Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead,’ Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 45, No. 2, (Summer, 1999), p. 121.

Susan Briante

Susan Briante

Susan Briante is a poet, translator and essayist. Her work is forthcoming from “POOL,” “Mandorla” and “Redivider”. From 1992–1997, she lived in Mexico City where she worked for the magazines Artes de México and Mandorla. Briante is an assistant professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her first collection of poetry, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, was recently published by Ahsahta Press.

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