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Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories 1968-1986.


Are people afraid of wanda Coleman? "Oh God, are they ever, man," she answers. "And maybe with good reason. Because often I've walked around this town and I'm just a moment away from homicide. I'm that kind of angry." One immediately sees how Wanda Coleman's poetry and prose have been inspired by her frustration and anger at her position as a black woman and by her desire to translate those feelings into action. Though Coleman sees herself as an object of fear, the beauty of her work lies in her consistent ability to draw the reader into her language and her reality--sometimes by focusing on the distance between reader and writer and sometimes on their inheretn nearness.

Wanda Coleman was born in 1946 and raised on the edge of Watts, California; she has worked as a medical billing clerk/transcriber, waitress, typist, dancer and screenwriter. The first black writer to win an Emmy for daytime drama as well as the first black woman editor of a major black men's magazine, Coleman raised her three children as a single mother on welfare. And she writeos of what she knows--of job interviews, soap operas, dying love and dead children, of hungry lives determined by the politics of "the tall caucasian men," of drugs and prostitution and madness-in essence, of the lives of the black urban poor in the ghettos of Los Angeles.

Coleman's poems are themselves an act of liberation, meant to be experienced as something almost physical, like a punch or a whipping or an "intercerebral hemorrhage/coma or/acute onset of coronary/during coitus," as she writes in "La Dolce Morte." She wants her language to express anger, to incite anger and to shake all who read it out of their complacency--and she often succeeds. I her opening poem, "Stone Rock Lady," Coleman offers a portrait of a woman of seemingly great strength, one who "take[s] stone injections" in order to become impenetrable. With a wry smile on her face, she taunts the reader, challenging him to "try and pierce my zinkenite vagina." This woman alone symbolizes power, not as the traditional earth mother but as "the rock lady" whose arms "crush th e men" she has made, "especially the ones of shale/who are delicate, egotists/who make the mistake of thinking/their sheet rock dicks/are enough to bring me crumbling to my knees."

Yet if you listen closely enough you begin to hear the insecurities underneath the poem's blatantly menancing tone. Coleman's harsh words represent solid walls built "against the wat ery tide of emotions/my defense agaisnt love, against fear." In order to achieve a "soul of flint/heart of mica/eye of diamond" she must shoot up, injecting qualities which do not exist naturally within her, to guard and "steel me against the world." Coleman's self-protective impulses are universal: Like all of us, she wants to "be able to take it all/and come away whole . . . solid as gibraltar."

Feelings of alienation and a consciousness of forever being seen as "other" permeate much of Coleman's poetry; she has either been left or deliberately moved outside the inner circle, which may consist of an all-male writers' group having out in a Watts cafe ("I was a stubborn little mud hen at the fringe of the clique,/starved/for approval") or the mass of young white Hollywood professionals ("I am plagued by the fear of not making it/poverty claws at me claws at me claws at me") or the family of her white lover ("his towheaded cousin of 5 greeted him warmly,/turned, looked at me, cocked his head/'I thought they didn't allow niggers up heah!'/he dropped his jaw and turned red. i fled the room/in the car, later, he tried to console me. he could not find words/and i had none for the ugly i felt"). While Coleman sometimes manages to summon up the strength to break through the cracks and enter the circle or just walk away, often she can do neither, controlled by forces too big for her to confront: they're all against you in that paranoiac $$$ prism keep trying to see yourself/reflection oooh black as swamp bottom mired into muck you violent animal struggle struggle struggle to get to solid ground get free get solidified/ grounded ("Essay on Language")

Coleman writes with an immediacy that let us know that she is there inside the poem, and that we must sit beside her. We feel no sense of voyeurism, for Coleman assumes the reader is her comrade, one who understands and who can be brought into the action, into her inner life. This absence of distance intensifies our experience--sometimes to the point of becoming oppressive. When Coleman expresses her disgust for her impotent lover, we have no time to step back, to cover our ears. We aren't merely listening to her message to him; she has turned around and speaks directly to us: i'm starved for that mythical hard-on and it is a myth my hands are cramped/tired/have failed to jerk him into a salute. he's one of those--60s damage it's the same old grunt struggle the same old pain unsaid the same old stinky disappointment ("Barry's Goodbye")

Sometimes the stretch for the powerful fails, and cColeman leaves us with the trivial or the cliched. Sometimes no balance is found between the polemical and the understated. ("Save me from bigoted old white bitches" or "daddy wants me to be a little woman/ of the house. no more rough and tumble.") And sometimes it all comes together and works, as in "Day of Remembrance": when you salt my wound, gentle hand be aware of the pain that signifies healing that keloid/my suffered love centuries thick, and the atlantic of my tears affords no passage back that Africa has vanished when you touch my cheek, gentle hand and plumb my eyes with yours be aware. the hurt signifies knowing

Several of Coleman's peices are purely celebratory--of sex, of women's bodies, of forgiveness, of the bond between mothers and daughters or between women. She has the gift of articulating pure desire, whether for men--"certainly that big red tongue/certainly that big red throb i love to ride into/wild wild tremblings surrounded/cloaked/in your numb lust/it is. yes indeedd"--or for another womand: "his wife and i exchanged a look/(let me have you. let me touch you. you'll/never want a man again)/i smiled/he wasn't the first man i'd ever seen/with a case of pussy envy."

Often Coleman expresses her tone of celebration, of emotional freedom or of lament by using a biblical cadence. With repetition adn internal rhyme she creates the quality of a prayer or a song, sometimes even labeling a stanza the "refrain." In fact, several of her poems--"Blues for the Man on Sax," "Walkin' Papers Blues" and "Bottom Out Blues"--sound as if Coleman wrote them with music in mind: "you scoot along the bottom/think you goin' somewheres/you scoot aroun on bottom/think you gonna go somewheres/you walkin' in the darkness/see daylight everywhere"

Heavy Daughter Blues, Coleman's third book, also offers us the first look at her prose. She interspereses the collection of 137 poems with sixteen prose pieces, some of them full-blown short stories, effectively arranged to act as counterpoints or commentary on the poems around them. Perhaps the most powerful of the prose pieces is "The Blues in the Night," a portrait of a divorced mother whose feelings of sexual longing and desperation Coleman makes almost as tnagible for the reader as they are for the character: "She aches for seduction/his lips pressing in on hers. She aches to yield to his manful grasp working her back, her shoulders, her breasts. She can almost inhale that pungent musk opening her nose, obliterating all thought." Alone one night, her children in bed, she searches through her records for music to "lull/temper/arrest" the "beastly savage aprowl in her veins." As she plays her 45s, from James Brown to Al Green to Otis Redding, she dances alone around her living room, reveling in herself: "Her head is soaked and her hair goes all the way back to Africa. She bends, turns, spins until she's one with that sound. One pulse. One throb hip-quaking--a frenzy working her way through steps she knows as intimately as the scrs on her psyche." She bathes, dresses, glances in at her children, and then, as "a jolt of expectation shoots through her," she "hastens along that familiar avenue certain of her destination/that honky tonk haven, that urbane ubiety of flesh hunters and soulful survivors." Coleman has suceeded in writing something quite revolutionary here: the portrait of a woman who is an actively sexual being, without shame or guilt, as well as a responsible mother.

Wanda Coleman consistently confronts her readers with images, ideas and language that threaten to offend or at least to excite. In the title poem, she seems quite deliberate in her desire to shock, so much so that one can only suspect her of having finally let us in on the joke. Her tongue is firmly set in her cheek as she offers us a glimpse at the persona of Wanda, a rock lady, the public Wanda: "the t.v. is teaching my children hibakusha/i am in love with a dope fiend who sleeps under freeways/my neighbors are refugees from S.A./and i speak negrese." We want to listen to her poems, to hear her, often in spite of ourselves. Yes, people are afraid of Wanda Coleman. And, knowing this, she celebrates, telling us in the last stanza of "Heavy daughter Blues": I throw the symbols. I make reverberations myth/my girldchild and me cackle joyfully in the kitchen as we make cookies for the party of the world.
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Author:Lehrich, Tamar
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 20, 1988
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