“My delicious dilemma is language”, Wanda Coleman writes. “And as I’ve become more and more shattered, my tongue has become tangled… I am glassed in by language as well as the barriers of my dark skin and financial embarrassment.”. In a way, those lines are a microcosm of the qualities that dominate Coleman’s distinctive poems: rampant alliteration, incessant citations of societal pressures, and the documentation of the simultaneous frustrations and ecstasies with her subjects: language itself, doomed-from-the-beginning love affairs, motherhood.
This first UK edition of Coleman’s work takes the reader through 22 years of poems laced with a spitfire passion and erupting intelligence, as she documents and critiques her life as a working-class black woman living in Los Angeles, the city where she was born in 1946, and lived most of her life, until her death in 2013.
The collection’s title, Wicked Enchantment, invokes the feeling one is entering a dark forest. Coleman’s poems are the frightening bellows in the distance, the approach of footsteps behind you, the fallen branches tripped over and further causing injury. Poems come fast after their loosely-anchoring titles. As in ‘Giving Birth’:
against bone. rubbing. pressure against bladder
i pee and pee and pee
and drink water and more water. never enough water
it twists in my womb
my belly a big brown bowl of jello quakes
twenty pounds and climbing
eat eat eat…
The lack of punctuation would seem to suggest simultaneity of sensations rather than sequentiality. Coleman’s poems often progress like this, breaking the silence with short, syncopated, seemingly incomplete utterances, careering almost out of control. “[A]After the war the war begins the war goes on”, begins Notes of a Cultural Terrorist 2, a poem in which Coleman indicts the American military complex, further suffusing it with the paradoxes of wide-spread poverty in LA: “she’d be satisfied if she lived to see her refrigerator full/ just once before she departs this planet.”
For all of the work’s fanged-ness (“wanda you’re ALWAYS on the attack” she writes in one poem), she was adept at ricocheting from her rightfully owned anger to lyrics of romantic desire, joys and jealousies, and her downright fatigue at living the life she was living. This fatigue is elaborated in “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead”:
wanda why ain’t you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a ready-made family
why don’t you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
It’s a recurring gesture that Coleman speaks to herself in a sardonic tone. Elsewhere in the collection, Coleman describes working multiple jobs over her life (she was, at different times, a waitress, typist, radio presenter, editor of an adult magazine and a writer for the TV soap Days of Our Lives), as well as raising children, and being in-and-out relationships that took a toll on her spirit. Confrontations with the LAPD are regular and inconvenient:
they had a warrant out for my arrest
‘what’s your name? where’s your identification’
i was half naked so they didn’t come inside
“I want freedom when I write,” Coleman wrote. “I want the freedom to use any kind of language – whatever I feel is appropriate to get the point across.” To this end, the forms of her poems de ella shift: amoeba-shaped stanzas, traditional left-aligned poems, maths equations, multiple-choice questions, and – a form she can be credited with pioneering and developing – American Sonnets. Coleman’s shocking, sensuous American Sonnet sequences are crammed. They’re not meant to seem easy. They are the usual fourteen lines but, in Coleman fashion, march to their own drum, rejecting traditional meters and rhyme-schemes, constrained instead by rules the poet has set. Their world is one of “recalcitrant darling[s]”, “cash-starved seducer[s]”, where “every lover perishes with/ the memory of her sculpted skin.”
Coleman received various awards throughout her lifetime, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, but she wasn’t acclaimed in the highest rungs of the poetry ladder. Yet her influence on her is clear through the American zeitgeist in today’s literary poet-stars such as Terrance Hayes (who edited this collection, and wrote the award-winning American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin), Morgan Parker and Danez Smith. Wicked Enchantment is emphatic, explosive, and, if persisted through, a lesson on reimagining the place and usefulness of anger in art and in life.
Wicked Enchantment is published by Penguin at £9.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Oluwaseun Olayiwola is a member of the Ledbury Poetry Critics mentorship programme.