American Sonnets (Part VII: Close-up on Coleman)

Dora Malech
December 14, 2017
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[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part VI: Hayes In His Own Words)”]

Wanda Coleman’s 100 American Sonnets span several collections of her poems, a series that reads as both a cohesive aesthetic project and a kind of ongoing lens through which to see the world and render that vision lasting. They are playful, fierce, incisive, heartbreaking. The first one includes a tabloid-esque opening (“lurid confessions”), then cuts to a kind of pop quiz on systemic inequality (including an equation and a lettered set of in-your-face multiple choice possibilities), then cuts again – to violence (“the blow to his head cracks his skull”), music (“he bleeds eighth notes & treble clefs”), a cryptic lyric aside (“(sometimes i feel like i’m almost going)”), and an ending as spoken invitation (“to Chicago. baby you want to go?”).  To say this poem is “representative” of Coleman’s American Sonnets is misleading – it’s not that these particular moves are ones that necessarily reoccur, but that the combination of formal innovation in conversation with a formal tradition, urgent engagement with a social and political present and context, musicality and moments of lyric beauty, linguistic play, and fusing of the embodied spoken with literary history is representative of subsequent poems. This poem feels in conversation with itself – even if that conversation takes the form of interruption – a changing of channels or quick-cut editing; others in the series are “for” or “after” other poets and writers, even more explicitly in conversation with history and the contemporary literary landscape.

In several past posts, I noted Coleman’s absence in sonnet anthologies, even anthologies that include experimental or non-traditional sonnets by other poets; Coleman’s sonnets themselves speak to that exclusion, wrestling with making art out of marginality. In American Sonnet 3:

i protest this tyranny of ghosts
who reign in the world of letters
would-be betters

Just quoting this three line chunk doesn’t quite do justice to Coleman’s work, however; “reign” plays off of “rain” in the previous stanza, and “i protest” visually lines up with the words “who permits” in the previous stanza, enabling the eye to make “protest permits,” assembling its own right to assemble. The poem begins with an oblique disclaimer (“–the stuff myths are made of / (cum grano salis)”), and ends with two lines that make me think of the grand ambitions of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:

today i protest the color of the sky
that it is not the color of my skin

Both Coleman and Shelley attempt to harness power through words (Shelley’s poem attempts to invoke and command the wind: “Make me thy lyre . . . Be thou me, impetuous one!”), though Coleman’s protest to the sky has particular social implications as well: if the “tyranny of ghosts” in the “world of letters” are literary gatekeepers, approving poems and voices that don’t include her and her experiences, she will go above their heads and compel the very sky with her words. I think of the ending of June Jordan’s piece “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America,” where she writes of judging a creative writing contest in Minnesota, encountering a plethora of terms describing the natural world, but:

Sixteen different manuscripts of poetry written in 1985 and not one of them uses the terms of my own Black life! Not one of them writes about the police murder of Eleanor Bumpurs or the Bernard Goetz shooting of four Black boys or apartheid in South Africa, or unemployment, or famine in Ethiopia, or rape, or fire escapes, or cruise missiles in the New York harbor, or medicare, or alleyways, or napalm, or $4.00 an hour, and no time off for lunch. 

I did not and I would not presume to impose my urgencies upon white poets writing in America. But the miracle of Black poetry in America, the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America, is that we have been rejected and we are frequently dismissed as “political” or “topical” or “sloganeering” or “crude” and “insignificant” because . . . we have persisted for freedom.

Like Jordan’s essay, Coleman’s third sonnet seems to question these assumptions of the “universal” in poetry, insisting that she too be included in the so-called “universal.”

Coleman’s eighteenth sonnet in the series is “– after June Jordan,” and it, too, aims to harness the greatest of forces:

(my abysmal heart compels the moon compels
wave upon wave. compels reason.)

it ends:

sky river mother – your tongue plunders my mouth

Jordan’s essay’s subtitle is: “Something like a sonnet for Phillis Wheatley.” An American Sonnet, perhaps.

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