June 10, 2010

Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman [USA]

Born in the Watts community of Los Angeles, Coleman escaped a life as a welfare mother after the post 1965 rebellions by becoming involved in a number of social organizations designed, as she has put it, to channel “the riotous” energies of young Black Americans into constructive modes. She worked as a medical secretary, a magazine editor, a journalist and scriptwriter, all the while writing poetry and taking various creative writing courses, including a course with Clayton Eshelman.

She began publishing poems in the late 1970s, and published her first book, Mad Dog Black Lady with the famed Black Sparrow Press in 19779. From the beginning her work was deeply concerned with issues of racism, but over the years she has gradually transformed her work from a dramatic performative representation of inner city African Americans to a more experimental investigation of voice and the positing of the Black American. Although her influences include Black writers such as Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, she also cites other writers such as Walt Whitman, Herman Meliville, Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson.

Among her many books of poetry, most published by Black Sparrow, are Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986, African Sleeping Sickness, Hand Dance, Native in a Strange Land, and Mercurochrome. She has also written short stories, longer fiction and memoir.

In 1999 she received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She has also been awarded grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the California Arts Council


Mad Dog Black Lady (Santa Barbara, Black Sparrow Press, 1979); Imagoes (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1983); Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1987); The Dicksboro Hotel (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989); African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990); Hand Dance (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993); American Sonnets (1-24) (Milwaukee: Woodland Pattern/Light & Dust Press, 1994); Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1996); Bathwater Wine (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1998); Mercurochrome: New Poems (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001); Ostinato Vamps (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003)

from American Sonnets

--after Robert Duncan

my earliest dreams linger/wronged spirits
who will not rest/dusky crows astride
the sweetbriar seek to fly the
orchard’s sky. is this the world i loved?
groves of perfect oranges and streets of stars
where the sad eyes of my youth
wander the atomic-age paradise


the blood of a stark and wounded puberty?
o what years ago? what rapture lost in white
heat of skin/walls that patina my heart’s
despair? what fear disturbs my quiet
night’s grazing? stampedes my soul?

o memory. i sweat the eternal weight of graves

(from American Sonnets, 1994)


i am seized with the desire to end

my breath in short spurts. shoulder pain
the world lengthens then contracts
(in deep water—my sudden swimming. the surface
breaks. thoughts leap. the Buick bends
a corner. an arc of light briefly sweeps the dark walls)
everywhere there are temples of stone
and strange chantings—ashes angels and dolls
i forget my lover. i want a stranger—
to shiver at the unfamiliar touch of the one
who has not yet touched me

a furred spider to entrap my hungers
in his silk. with virulent toxin
to numb my throat

(from American Sonnets, 1994)

Essay on Language (7)


a warped sense of communication
impairs the business of conventional narrative

like feeling robbed, the rules of orgasm no mystery

given a voice, one must struggle with one’s own
social type-casting on the edge of ambiguity\
it’s exclusively inconclusive

(language cannot contain this magnitude of afro-agony.
righteous rage is difficult to keep jacketed)

snapping. not a march (on Washington or anywhere else),
but a death ballet

I am compelled to protest
the demise of the deliciously clandestine.
the new underground is sterile,
devoid of dangerous rhythms, and strewn
with the grotesque bones of riotous fists

drowned birds. thru the art
thru the art

(looks as desolate as a chassis graveyard)

repeated midnight embraces. yet i’ve slipped
out of the framework of love
lost confidence. all these years wasted.
no lucrative controversy on the literary horizon

(the centaur bends over me, towers. release
in the blade of his tongue)
issuing from the culture

one bullet and a nation bleeds for decades
speaking of dragging out a bad ending

what neither illuminates nor exemplifies/corrodes
grappling with onset of antipoetics
badly mangled intent and didactic syntax

alas. i may never find the proper adverb


(from Mercurochrome, 2001)

Incomplete Acts

hiding the face after it makes
front page news

straightening out a bent disposition

killer shadows armed with nasty gats
chasing down a rat on the eve of righteousness

wise & ultimate peace

squeezing the three-hundred pound lady
into the size ten life

rising out of the dungheap unstained

he looks the part. trying
to make him play it

finding a cure for October

(from Mercurochrome, 2001)

Espantaelpsis (3)

winter my beloved

like our hair, our dreams are going gray
the stars are winking out
first a father, then a child, an uncle—and soon,
others, including a mother or two
who will be left to care or carry on?

a chill in the bowel

here we are divided from comfort by lies
and stubborn jealousies/the hateful manias
fed by ancient rivalries & misreadings
(who was most loved? who was punished or spanked
for every niggling mistake? who was deprived
of childhood? who most desperately seized the night?)

a dulling of the reflexes

there is no rescue. the larder
is full of moths. little white moths like
annoying flits of decay. there is no luck. chaos
steals our sleep, crisis robs us of time & cash

brittle nails & thoughts

hours crawl yet weeks fly
bones spit and curse bad steps
first slow then slower. light hurts.
strange noises confuse the ears. bruises
refuse to heal. the pose causes muscle strain

numbness & tingling

winter my beloved
nothing made of flesh is safe

(from Mercurochrome, 2001)

Against Forgetting Cento

and the crows go by…

my teacher revealed a pattern
a black shaft loomed up inside me and grew bigger
as night grew
yet i leave this earth a lowly eater
without having tasted good meat
in this neutered air where mad Nijinskys swoon
in ambidextrous ennui
better to have never been born than to die ignored

mistress of slumber
white sleep
bloodfire (my breasts swollen and itchy
with his sucklings)

America, I broil in the racism which makes
me who i am—just another dead voice
without a booking agent

i have learned how women fall to bone
how true women suffer what false men celebrate

these ravings in my ear come off the yap
of a faithless friend

in this dark time brave tongues are mute
inthis field of cinders i am the smoke
my genius turned ferocity

i fall down on my knees and beg

my son’s terrible eyes
my son’s terrible eyes and sad cold hands

(from Mercurochrome, 2001)

Broken Rhythms

like spellstuff all the conceits i have shed
collect on sun-slashed soil where a
three-headed woman gathers them to make
her hoodoo a powder in fire to summon a spirit
a finely ground pinch of alcohol to cure
a cough, or in a salve to beautify aging skin
make your wish for love for hate
and burn the fragrant wax with a hint of dust
chant toward the sky watch. the children gather
watch the children dance watching the children’s eyes
watch. the children with tongues like wolves.

(from Ostinato Vamps, 2003)

Soul Traveler

not dispersing but containing blackness

it was the ending and so reruns began
Amazon style, summer came calling,
fried brains and all. dumbfounded
in Los Angeles where misquitoes drowse
in noonday heat, bloodlust drained from
tropical eyes, the air thin as a haint’s brassiere

luxmobiles took the heights like llamas
where dollars shine from foreheads as smooth
as polished fenders, and from oversized
designer pocketbooks toted under shaved
and flavored underarms, breasts revealed
in bright colors, tank tops and bustiers

negra Afro angel

pat those cheeks in Spanish,
those too round trotters—a lingo dug by all

quietly there’s reciprocating in snatches
from whistling lips, sunbeams and posters of James Dean

(shy tourist girl, a face all acne and
inexperience, shares her mother’s
private smile. “buy something, some trinket.
support the local economy”)

the emissary of G.O.D. calls her over,
places the silver cross at her throat, fixes her
with agate eyes, fingers splayed against
her hips. she follows him to the other side
of the moon, counts the hours under azure,
feigns reaching for her pen

note: plastic trash bags, cheap jewelry, the ebony cat in the cradle

she is made of ocean spry,
condor feathers and memories of sin

(from Ostinato Vamps, 2003)


“American Sonnets” 12 and 17
Reprinted from American Sonnets (1-24) (Milwaukee: Woodland Pattern/Light & Dust Press, 1994). ©1994 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted by permission of the poet.

“Essay on Language (7),” “Incomplete Acts,” “Espantaelepsis (3),” and “Against Forgetting Cento”
Reprinted from Mercurochrome: New Poems (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001). ©2001 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted by permission of David Godine.

“Broken Rhythms” and “Soul Traveler”
Reprinted from Ostinato Vamps (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). ©2003 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

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