» Book Review
Review: Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman
Black Sparrow Press, 2020
Paperback, $15.95, 224 pages
One of the few good things to come out of 2020 was Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman, skillfully edited by poet Terrance Hayes. Describing Coleman’s work is not an easy task. Her outspoken work stretches for miles and leaves shockwaves where it lands. Hayes describes her as a “grenade of brilliance, boasts, and braggadocio.” Having lived on the edges of the poetry elitists, her body of work often neglected, she was still referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles by those who valued her work. A native daughter of L.A., born in 1946 in the Watts neighborhood, Coleman also wrote novels, nonfiction, and short stories. Known mostly for her poetry, she left behind a large volume of work and a legion of fans.
Wicked Enchantment includes selected poems from eight of her published collections. The book opens with an illuminating section entitled “Wanda In Her Own Words” that includes quotes from her other writing and interviews. There, Coleman says, “My delicious dilemma is language. How I structure it. How the fiction of history structures me. And as I’ve become more and more shattered, my tongue has become tangled . . . I am glassed in by language as well as by the barriers of my dark skin and financial embarrassment.” Thus, the book is off and running, and delicious dilemmas of many kinds run through the entire collection.
Coleman’s voice as a Black woman fighting against gender and racial oppression is undeniably striking. Through poems like “Essay on Language,” Coleman gives the poetic middle finger to naysayers and cowards, “trying to be the / best i can spurred by blackness but they keep telling me the / best fashion in which to escape linguistic ghettoization / is to / ignore the actuality of blackness blah blah blah and it will / cease to / have factual power over my life. which doesn’t / make sense to me . . .” In those lines, she mocks the ivory tower advising her to take it easy and to be nice. Instead, she is “spurred by blackness” to sniff out racisms and other degradations, and she doesn’t hesitate to make them plain and clear. In “Essay on Language 6,” Coleman writes,
there are those who have no passion but who
are sensitive enough to sense the void within
and therefore must imagine passion. i often find
that among that kind, there are those who
detest the truly passionate out of an envious rage
that has always faced us passionate ones.
Sometimes the poems are surprising, laced with humor and irreverence. The title alone of “I Ain’t Yo Earthmama” suggests trouble, and then the first line throws down the gauntlet: “boogers are not my forte.” Exactly whose forte are boogers? Despite her claim, Coleman does quite well with boogers, at least as a jumping off point. From there, she goes on to combine Poseidon, experimental sex, and vomit in this juggernaut of a poem.
Coleman continually pushes into new territory, seeking poetic freedom. In “Dream 924,” the speaker drives a car, “and i’m flying as the speedometer / needle presses urgently against the edge. ah – the power. i / am looking for the answer. and i move forward . . .” In that speeding urgency toward freedom, Coleman has picked up descriptions like, as Hayes has described her, a “flesh-eating poet,” while others have described her as simply mean. Coleman’s intensity can be felt throughout Wicked Enchantments with lines such as “pseudo-intellectuals with suck-holes for brains” (from “American Sonnet 3”), but it’s the quiet moments in poems such as “The Saturday Afternoon Blues” where Coleman’s mastery is best experienced:
saturday afternoons are killers
when the air is brisk and warm
ol’ sun he steady whispers
soon the life you know will be done
This languid summer scene, which could feel invigorating, instead showcases Coleman’s adept ability to layer grief within quiet, even sunny, moments. To hark back to the speeding car from “Dream 924,” that same car that pushes the speed limit is perhaps most powerful when simply idling in the sun, all its inherent force just waiting beneath the hood.
An already strong collection, the book hits hyper-drive with the inclusion of work from Coleman’s last book, Mercurochrome. In “American Sonnet 94,” she writes:
weeper. this is your execution
weeper. this is your groveling stone
weeper. yours is the burst & burnings of a city
With each “weeper,” followed by those strangely indefinite almost percussive periods, Coleman hits a bass drum of sorrow, and the propulsive music continues throughout the book’s final section. The poems here jump as if alive, as if charged from within. “Thiefheart” is full of stunning one-liners—“i’d steal the t from the end of time”—and ends with a line that seems achingly prescient, given our current American moment of racial discord and political upheaval: “i’d steal the poison from this muthaland.”
Coleman’s poems are electric and profoundly inspiring. They make readers want to write poems, to read more poems, to have more faith in poetry—more faith in the difficult task of living—and to shove this book into as many hands as possible. If someone is disenchanted with poetry, or with the state of the world, I recommend reading Wicked Enchantment. Wanda Coleman’s poems turn on the lights. They set off sparks.