CAT TYC Reviews
THE TATTERS by Brenda Coultas
(Wesleyan University Press, 2014)
The Tatters is Brenda Coultas’ homage to “poet’s hero” & friend Brad Will, who she describes as an anarchist, activist, Indymedia reporter, freight train hopper, squatter, fire-eater and poet who was murdered while filming political events in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006. While reading this, it felt impossible to not think about what it means to be an activist. I found myself metaphorically passing the word ‘activist’ back and forth in my hands. Any time I felt I was certain of what I thought it meant, I would find that meaning almost instantly dissolved like handfuls of sand escaping from my fingers.
These filaments of escape are the ‘tatters’ in which Coultas explores, “I, ephemera, carrying my chemical burden/ I, ephemera, once paper becoming plastic becoming digital or /I, ephemera holding the space/ I, ephemera, hold the space.”
This section represents Coultas’ particular style of documentary poetics, more interested in the first person perspective of being on political ground and using language of inclusiveness – ‘hold the space’- to give the reader access to her view on the ground and in conversation with her friend.
Another example of Coultas’ view is when she speaks to the specificity of Will which is harkened in the piece “A Mass For Brad Will”, where she writes, “If I were a handsome feather, I’d walk to City Hall/ In full plumage & release all of Manhattan’s political prisoners/ If I were a quill, I’d give you life / On this quiet page.”
This phrase speaks to a certain parallel that runs through out the entire piece. It speaks to the generous spirit of this man that Brenda bears the responsibility of carrying, not only in memory of him, but also as an attempt to follow through on that generosity by humanizing the emotional struggles of political commitment.
With recent events sparked after the Eric Garner verdict, the activist identity has been on my mind a lot. I knew action was happening based on what I saw on social media & in the news after the fact but anyone I talked to in person said they weren’t actively participating in the actions because ‘they just didn’t have it in them anymore.’
The first time I heard this it struck me (I was having my own conflicts with school & work obligations so it made me a feel a little less guilty) but when it became a constant, I really started to wonder. These people weren’t saying they didn’t care or that they weren’t outraged. Many were trained professional union activist non profit go getters but there was a certain level of exhaustion, both emotional and physical, that they pointed to that made me think.
A couple friends transplanted from Philly told me they felt they were reliving the time of Mumia protests again. How they phrased it pointed to a hint of trauma that I had never seen a light on in regards to political action.
Then, upon further explanation, the other constant was acknowledgement of other responsibilities competing with politics. Children, non profit jobs and art projects centered around other injustices and physical disability. All issues framing a milieu of their own politics which acknowledges the ying yang nature of a lifetime in activism.
A balance of light and dark that The Tatters toes the line from start to finish.
Coultas’ personalization of Will acknowledges all things hopeful & utopic from the activist lens happens when she says, “When the bicyclists take over the streets / and bring the city / to a standstill, Brad said that / is critical mass
I asked, “ What happens when the city is shut down ?” / He said, “ Then we’ll dance.”
Being introduced to Brad Will in this way makes the End Notes more relevant and special where focus turns towards his journalism and why he did it, his connection to the poetry community and the poem he read at St. Marks Poetry Project on the last New Year’s before his murder.
This accessibility to the activist makes one think of the individuals in our own lives who take politics one step further. The ones who are always on their way to a meeting, an action & asking you to sign a petition in transit. The ones whose name impart a tiny inflection of faith that someone is doing something for this horribly unjust world despite the fact that you just can’t for x, y, z reasons. The ones who introduced us to Marx and took us to that place that introduced you to the revolution that lives within us.
Coultas’ individual political awareness gets equal measure & also points to the darker landscape of invested political activism. It surrounds her while in the middle of an action against fracking, “The last glass of water sits before you, how fast or slow will you drink it ?”
The ‘tatters’ she speaks of evoke a study of what is happening on the periphery. Of a movement, and of an action. What we want to change and what we have lost.
The unspoken stakes in committing to change this world.
“The water is an hourglass, and I write fast as I can before it runs dry.”
This kind of precariousness that Coultas is describing parallels what Judith Butler wrote about after the birth of Occupy, where she described the specifics of being precarious in a political nature as being “ not simply an existential truth – each of us could be subject to deprivation, injury, debilitation, or death by virtue of events or processes outside of our control. It is, also importantly, a feature of what we might call the social bond, the various relations that establish our interdependency.”
An analysis of connection is what transcends this to not being just one elegy but really more elegy of a constant multiple, friends and water. This text is a narrative of that particular ‘social bond’, speaking to the friendship between she and Brad Will but also to the relationship that she has, as an activist & human, to the planet and its limited resources.
Cat Tyc is a poet/new media artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Currently she is a MFA Candidate for Writing/Activism at Pratt Institute.