Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Enter It Singing: Star Coulbrooke’s Thin Spines of Memory

Reviewed by Cheryl C. Pace

Thin Spines of Memory seems to me to be less an autobiographical work than a poetic discourse on the role of the past and recollection in every human life, any human life. Hers as author. Yours and mine as readers. And to the extent that poet Star Coulbrooke peels back the leaves of her experience to reveal the seeds of human experience, she distinguishes herself — quietly and generously — as a great poet.

As a good poet, she weaves consistent, sensual images into experiential meaning, and with language, she transcends the limits of language.  Fair or not, I expected that in this collection of 25 poems. But as that rare jewel – a great poet – she presents herself and her work as entirely authentic.  Exquisitely humble.  Unsentimental.  Unrelenting.  Unselfconscious. She guides us through a world most of us have difficulty navigating alone – the world of memory. She offers companionship, but no protection from its dangers. “Memory,” she writes in “Early Death,” “not the fear of dying, holds us back.”

Coulbrooke’s memory lane is a walk from past to present through experience, and there is no suggestion that we can go back, that any part of our past will ever exist beyond the moment when we experience it. She is clear in “Foothold at Winter’s Edge,” that even as we near the end of our lives, we are inexplicably surprised by the passage of time. “[A]stounding,” she writes,

… to think of half a century
here between us, time pushing down
on our bones, deceptively fragile

And she goes on to remind us that  there is perhaps no choice and certainly no reason to go anywhere but forward. She models for us, in “Recessional,” a joyful journey into that unknown:

Beautiful dreamer, sleep on. Fear
is only a passing thing, no more
than a memory …
not premonition, but visitation.
Enter it singing.

Coulbrooke’s memory lane is a path through common ground. That is where she shines her light – upon the way and not upon herself.  And the way is complicated, often warm, sweet and melodic, but nonetheless, a journey of losses. In “River Once Removed,” she writes,

Gone, the old swimming hole
where the river bent and split
for an island of trees …

Then, in that same poem, she remembers for us, constructing the memory that helped her to navigate that lost landscape:

…I constructed
my island, the moss, the grass, the rocks
all around, the places I cushioned the roar,
the necessary hardness.

If she suggests that clinging to the ways and whats of childhood is a fool’s errand, she reminds us that we have advance notice of the inevitable, and change isn’t really a surprise. She writes in “Before the Dam,”the book’s opening poem, Already what we knew was vanishing,/all but the bravest of birds and furred souls.” The harsh truth, it seems, is only as harsh as our resistance to it.

Beginning to end, there seems to be no search for truth going on here. Memory as the poet presents it to us, is restricted to the body. It is a sensual recollection entirely without applied meaning. In the vitality of the present, if we are to become authentic and therefore happy, we are obligated to give it meaning and then grow the meaning until forgiveness allows us to let the past go, and our stories with it. In “Family Reunion,” she writes,

Here we are, family
connected by blood, law,
adoption, but long-estranged

Here we are strangers
together as family again,
learning what to forgive.

When it comes to looking back, Coulbrooke seems to have little respect for excessive nostalgia. But if she offers her readers hard reality, she also reminds us that the reality of passing time, our loss of innocence, is hopeful, anticipated every step of the way, exciting in its prospects. She reminds us that in our very bones we look forward to our future, to breaking the bonds of childhood.  In “Hungry For It,” we find this: 

Outside in the darkness their children
play hard against the call of night,
wild as fireflies, hungry for the meat of
something more,
something they can’t name,
something hot, red, and sweet.

At the book launch of Thin Spines of Memory on April 30, 2017, Coulbrooke, the Poet Laureate of Logan, held a charmed audience in the palm of her hand on the top floor of the Bluebird Diner while she explained that her book was an intended gift to her community. And so it is. On the surface, her poems are autobiographical, a memoir.  But for the sake of her reader – who seems ever foremost in her mind – she seems to have done all the hard work. She has explored and marked the deep gorge of memory. She offers no less than herself as guide.

With her as my guide, I enter the world of the past and memory in any life … in her life … in my life … in yours. It is a sensation-rich world. It is where experience defines us, and later, applied meaning propels us. We revisit our imaginary pasts, it seems, until we understand we have outgrown them, that there’s no going back.

In “On The River,” Star Coulbrooke describes memory as

That river,
the one I grew up
drowning in.

That river
I went down to
like religion,

the one I come back to
for all it cannot hold.

And with those lines, she sets us free to embrace our real, vital and oh-so-present selves.


by Star Coulbrooke

Step out of the river
into a prickly pear forest
bait cans and spines
old rotted line strung from junipers
ending in sinkers and spinners.
Over the beach fish bones
maggoty carcasses
the bright flash of a lost lure.
Hope crowds up
shedding its clothes
where girls and boys
jumped into rapids
drifted together
as if drawn by fishing line.
Out of the stickers
our lure shines
hot sand wet skin
nerve endings afire
with invisible prickles
hair-thin spines of memory.


Thin Spines of Memory
Star Coulbrooke
Helicon West Press
52 pp

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

1 reply »

  1. As family we were so fortunate to be there. I left amazed, in reverent admiration for my sister in law and my friend. Love u star.

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