Review by: Justine Dymond


Mercurochrome: New Poems
By Wanda Coleman
ISBN: 1574231537

Wanda Coleman is a poet with fierce vision and the kind of playful precision of language that makes you want to touch the chiseled words of her poems with your tongue. As I read through this collection, I constantly resisted the urge to read aloud to anyone nearby, my family, friends, and total strangers. Encountering a Wanda Coleman poem means shedding the obsequious patter of "used word dealers" she warns against in the poem "Locofo’co" and re-investing in the forceful life of words to name our selves into existence. She refuses to use language to sanitize experience, like the antiseptic of the book’s title.

Coleman has been reinventing language for a while, at least since her first chapbook, Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, in 1977. With several collections of poetry, short stories, and television writing credits, she has amassed a sizeable oeuvre. She is a recipient of NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1999, all respectable credentials for a poet, but she deserves much more.

Her output is prolific, which can often mean an unevenness in quality in lesser writers, but I found Mercurochrome at 270 pages to be consistently fresh, surprising, and disturbing. The kind of disturbing I look for in writers who turn language into a lens for re-seeing the world. In Coleman’s case, the world she brings to the page is that of the black underclass. The collection opens with six sonnets presumably in the voice of a woman in prison, but prison serves as both literal space of confinement and conceit, troubling any easy distillation of meaning. Take the second sonnet as an example:

memory divides me against myself
without resolution. injunctions
from the court of public opinion
deny me access to the light.
my mother is plaintiff, her insurmountable rage
imprisons my heart
guilty. yes. i am as guilty as ever
never having quite awakened from sleep
indulging the molestations of The Sandman
encouraging a perverse and deepening
state of rimming. and having the nerve to
walk and talk/somnambulate in my discourse
what details shall be revealed when
the jailer sounds time to rise and shine?

As in several of the poems in this collection, Coleman embraces meta-commentary; her language comments on its own usage, jamming various diction levels against each other ("walk and talk/somnambulate in my discourse"), and yet manages just as powerfully to evoke an emotional response, at least in this reader.

Sometimes Coleman’s meta-commentary is less subtle as in "Locofo’co," and in the poem "Essay on Language (7)": "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)." But even in these less subtle moments, Coleman never betrays her craft as the last line above reveals in its ironic use of parentheses. And, as one partial to the nuances of line breaks, I take delight in the potential for various meanings in Coleman’s use of line endings such as the following from the same poem:

snapping. not a march (on Washington or anywhere else),
but a death ballet
i am compelled to protest
the demise of the deliciously clandestine.

In "Amnesia Fugue," one of the long poems that ends the volume, Coleman even offers us a glimpse of her poetics, a manifesto of sorts:

my stories begin, reach climax yet go unfinished
there are no stars in my moonless sky
i know nothing of pine forests or
finely leaded translucence
a cold plunge into the cool flow of the river
is something i will never take
lovely cliffs & the dwellings of fishermen
escape my canvas
yet, I feel no longings for evocations of Harlem rebirths
or warm sorghum over hot-buttered biscuits
the telltale red stains
on the white enamel beneath my wrists
are blobs of ketchup
scraped from dinner plates
i am blowing my trumpet in a hurricane
this is what i do in my spare time

The tour-de-force of this collection, however, is the fifth section titled "Retro Rogue Anthology," in which Coleman shows off her craft in imitation of poems published in The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940 and Poets of Humor & Protest. She pays homage to and lambastes the style of such poets as John Ashberry, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, and Randall Jarrell, among many others. My favorite is "Black Alice Laments," styled after Lewis Carroll, in which Coleman effortlessly picks up the rhyme and meter of a Carroll lyric:

by the time i got to Xanadu
my night had turned to day
all the gold had turned to gilt
and all the crystal, clay
the partyers were snoring bores
the goodies stashed away

In "Her Poem," Coleman takes Anne Sexton to task for her celebrity status,

a mere snip of a lady in her
size two dress and mushrooms, with
graying flaxen hair. And the room
was crammed with nymphal poets
like myself, and we leaned into our
elbows, hushed our competition for
her eyes, and scribbled sacred notes.

But while Coleman makes jabs here and there at the big guns of her discipline, she ultimately raises more important questions about stylistics—what is the relation between form (or formal experimentation) and theme, and what is the significance of the ventriloquist’s art in a postmodern age of copies extending back ad infinitum? There is no originating voice, only the response and call of voices, churning up the hard-packed, exhausted language, tilling for new growth.

In a review of Coleman’s previous collection, Bathwater Wine, critic Graham MacPhee wrote in African American Review, "Despite being formally complex and experimental, [Coleman’s] poetry is less interested in displaying its avant-garde credentials than in tracing the linguistic contours and texture of a realm of experience largely absent from ‘official’ American public discourse." I agree with MacPhee, and in Mercurochrome Coleman continues to "trace," but also to leave traces, the smoldering embers of fires she has lit under language.

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