Friday, November 29, 2013

Poem & RIP: Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman at Woodland
Pattern's 25th Anniversary Celebration,
Milwaukee (© Woodland Pattern)

There is so much to say when a great poet leaves us, and so much we need to say when that poet, while critically praised, nevertheless did not receive the acclaim she deserved during her lifetime. Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) was such a poet. The unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, her native city, a product of the flowering of writing workshops, some informed by the political and social currents of the 1960s, a working poet her entire life as well as a TV scriptwriter, journalist, playwright, novelist, a soothsayer and mage of language in a range of registers, a writer who knew how to fuse criticism and beauty, wit and ugliness, often funny, often lacerating, rough as tea leaves, gentle as a blowtorch, prolific, daring, unapologetically black and a woman and a mother and a lover, unapologetically cosmopolitan and creative and visionary, someone who lived her literature, Coleman passed away last weekend after a long illness.

She was one of the poets I always wanted to hear and see read live. I remember someone telling me about her performance that later appeared as poems in Tripwire, how she rocked as she read, how she declaimed the poetry with force and ferocity, how she could as easily be reading with a jazz or blues or rock band--and she recorded with Excene Cervenka among others. There was rhythm, blues, jazz, roll, rap, struggle, soar, and sear throughout her work. But I never was where she was when she was reading live, and so I was a fan from afar, turning to the pages of Mercurochrome or African Sleeping Sickness or her other books with admiration and awe, knowing that somewhere out there in the cosmos, Wanda Coleman's gifts, received and given, were and are resounding, and that readers, young and old, who were unfamiliar with her work might be so moved to crack open a volume to sample and savor what she has to offer.

Here are two poems from Mercurochrome: New Poems, a volume which includes a fine range of her talents, including her continuation of her "American Sonnets" series, which play hard with that form, as well as her "Retro Rogue Anthology," a series of riffs on major American poets (from Alan Ansen and John Ashbery, to C. D. Wright and Charles Wright), that both capture and send up those writers while also demonstrating Coleman's skill and verve. She was the real thing, word. So: two poems. Remember her, remember and read her, read her and listen to what she has to say.


leads me through one overtaxed
little citytown
after gas stop after vista view,
eludes the gridlocked main highway,
avoids the rain-and-moon patrols and fiery
extinction on that hairpin curve
of credit and industry. i'm on the look see
for that mean motor scooter,
one payment outracing the other
as i nightdrag cloud-lined bluffs toward
the destination i'm building on installments,
fingers crossed as i drive, double-malted in one hand,
French fries tucked against the armrest,
cheeseburger leaving grease stains
on the dashboard of my vision


seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song

as i fled for the stairs, i saw an earth child
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, "please don't go away
and leave us." he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight

from here, i see the clock tower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come

i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel
     churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.

at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves

stillborn, misshapened wings within me.

"El Camino Real" and "American Sonnets: 95," Copyright © by Wanda Coleman, from Mercurochrome: New Poems, Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001. All rights reserved.

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