Brenda Coultas, The Tatters (Wesleyan University Press, 2014).
Dave Zirin, Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy (Haymarket Books, 2014).
I am thinking of a legend that concerns, as many legends do, how to traffic in that which cannot be valued. It’s the one where the innkeeper accuses his cash-strapped upstairs neighbor of theft; the neighbor has been eating his meal of plain rice whenever the innkeeper cooks fish, in order to use the cooking smells for flavor. When the matter of this atmospheric pairing ends up in the courtroom of a judge known both for wisdom and inventiveness, the judge asks the neighbor to repay the innkeeper not in actual money, but in the sound of a handful of coins clinking together.
I am thinking of this because I am reading The Tatters by Brenda Coultas, and the book makes recurrent reference to the idea, in the pre-cell phone age, of using the sound of a coin in a slot to trick the telecom system into letting you make a phone call. Coultas wants to push back against the shuttering of the natural world and the contemporaneous homogenization and toothlessness of how we communicate with one another. She wants to meet head-on the unwelcome but essential information that much of what we are now made of is runoff. She writes:
“I have no name for what is inside me that is not nature
For these metal and plastic shavings”
These ingested and incorporating shavings are some of the casualties of human hard living with which the book is obsessed. Coultas asks us to face that the outdoors has come to be seen as a space of danger, that feathers used for ornamentation or stuck in the dirt are, in fact, bits of the bodies of birds. In one horrified passage, she tells us, “I have lived a long time without knowing the names of the trees. Barely able to recognize a locust leaf, and yet I can recognize the sign of oak, even varnished or cobbled into a desk or plank.”
This mourning for lost knowledge is twinned with the poet’s project of remembering the activist Brad Will, who was killed while documenting protests in Oaxaca. A biographical write-up in the back of the book notes that, instead of good-bye, Will often said, “Hey Kids, Stay in Trouble.” And these poems, cataloging and owning and turning from and grappling with our vast trash, are trouble in the most useful sense of the word.
In fact, it has been hard not to recall lines from The Tatters as I’ve moved through another excellent new book, Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. This book offers a sharp and intelligent encapsulation of how massive, multi-national celebrations too often literally trample on the underserved communities of their host countries. Some of the book’s most powerful ironies come in a chapter surveying the various environmental and economic blunders associated with past ceremonies and competitions: depictions of the publicly-funded snow that had to be imported into Vancouver in the midst of increasing homelessness and layoffs, the incessant irrigation of the grass in Johannesburg soccer stadiums while much of South Africa was fighting regular battles for good drinking water. Zirin makes a convincing case that, for the poor and working class residents of host countries, these events pay dividends tantamount to the sound of money without the coins behind it, but this time, it doesn’t seem quite so just.