(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

It will not come as a surprise to those familiar with Wanda Coleman’s writing to find that the first section of her extensive volume of new poems, Mercurochrome, is titled “Canned Fury.” From the publication of her first collection of poetry, Imagoes, in 1983, through a half dozen volumes of poems, stories, and essays in the 1990’s, Coleman has shaped and developed a voice that is designed to express the essence of what she calls in “Essay on Language (6)” a person who is “besotted with passion.” In the modern world, at least since W. B. Yeats’s formulation in “The Second Coming” (1920) that “the worst are full of passionate intensity,” an excess of passion has often been regarded as the mark of a mindless zealot. But an older tradition, which Shakespeare conveyed in Hamlet’s (1603) lament that he has failed to act even though he has “a motive and a cue for passion,” extols the person who is impelled toward some striking gesture by an undeniable depth and intensity of feeling. The differentiating factor between these two approaches resides in the blending of passion with a mental rigor that directs its power towards a defensible and coherent result, rather than a chaotic sprawl occasioned by untrammeled energy. As Coleman’s poems have indicated, she has motive and cue, as well as a very keen intelligence which operates as a control and guide to passionate expression.

Coleman has cited as one of her early influences The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976), while observing that it lacked “photographs ordrawings of the authors, bibliographies and biographical notes.” From the beginning, her poetry has functioned as form of imaginative autobiography, charting the growth of her mind through the evolving perspective of involved commentary on events and persons in her life and on social and cultural incidents particularly on the East and West Coasts of the United States, “from Harlem to Hollywood Park,” as she puts it in “For All Your Flavorless Effort.” Mercurochrome continues this pattern, the second section highlighted by poems about and addressed to her family: “Conversations with Daddyboy,” a fond communiqué to her father’s spirit; “Letter to My Older Sister (3-5),” which conveys the warmth and understanding between them; and the exuberant, “Christening,” which is an urgently loving paean to her son, beginning

we call him Olmec, my round-headed little
boy with wise wonderful old countenance
a Buddha-head, dark yellow cut with
a dash of red. . . .

These poems carry a sense of contemplative reflection, the voice of a “native-born, garden variety Afro-American,” as she describes herself, and are a kind of balance to the poems which speak as an “African American Womonist Matrilinear Working Class Poor Pink/White Collar College Drop-out Baby Boomer Earth Mother,” which is a moderately wry characterization of her more public self.

Speaking from this position, Coleman erects a verbal shield that is both protection from and counterassault against a society that evokes from her responses ranging from a wary standoff to open aggression. From her earliest work, Coleman’s poems have been marked by an eagerness to take names and make judgements, a readiness to be the voice of a justifiably angry and often suppressed community that has little more than language to resist uncomprehending agents of control and repression. Coleman reacts to and records the flow of life in an urban complex marked by manic energy, social dysfunction and the continuous fascination of a diverse population in transition. The linguistic foundation for the rhythms and styles of these poems is what Coleman has defined as “the Afro-American blues/ jazz musical tradition,” which she contends has been augmented by “a fierce and idealized individualism.” For her, this has meant a distinctive blending of the vibrant vernacular of an inner-city street culture with a carefully developed personal version of what she calls “the best of Western Civilization, as taught in the Los Angeles school system of the 50’s and 60’s, Sappho and beyond.” The result is poems, in the section entitled “Metaphysically Niggerish” that deftly join seemingly disparate entities. In “Afro-American Studies 101,” after surviving “da middle pass,” slaves “get busy copulatin’ and conceive the blues” leading to a condition in which “the field and the house are now incorporate/ &incorporeal.” As Coleman states in “The Words Are Still Burning,” “it doesn’t take a degree in particle physics/ to understand social injustice,” and from a philosophical discourse on masculine appeal in “Confessions Noires (2)” with its high culture emblems of desire, “Bartok segues into a lover’s drowse;” to the entrancing jazz musicality of...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)