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1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize | The Nation

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1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize

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In Coleman's work, racial and gender issues are made more complex by the particular and peculiar geography and iconography of urban Southern California: the all-night diner and the all-night laundromat, O.D.'s Barber Shop, the "Chevy graveyard," a painting of which provokes a pungent lyric of erotic recollection. Cars play vivid roles in her poems, as much a part of the cast of characters as they are of the landscape: "Mustang Sally," "the ebony-tinged calf-skinned back seat/of Kelly's customized black Cadillac coupe," "Mama's maroon '64 Ambassador," "my baby is in the back seat of the old Rambler/station wagon." In "Closing Time," the ritual dawn meeting of woman and car is the occasion for a vivid evocation of the speaker, a drive-in waitress, and her situation:

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I would like an unbroken stretch of drizzly

weekday afternoons, in a moulting season:

nowhere else to go but across the street for

bread, and the paper.

Later, faces, voices across a table,

or an autumn fricassee, cèpes and shallots,

sipping Gigandas as I dice and hum to

Charpentier's vespers.

No one's waiting for me across an ocean.

What I can't understand or change is distant.

War is a debate, or at worst, a headlined

nightmare. But waking

it will be there still, and one morning closer

to my implication in what I never

chose, elected, as my natal sky rains down

civilian ashes.

at Trinity & Santa Barbara
the last clunker on the blacktop is mine
...it's so clear. so desert cold. my thoughts steam up
the plate glass as i slide the grid of bars in place,
maroon lips tighten to my teeth
...
i'm slim just now. my jeans skirt is short and night bites
thru the nylon to my bones. my knuckles are raw from
washings of countertops, my fists jammed against the
linings of my empty denim pockets scrounging warmth,
clutch bag tucked firm at my armpit

Reading through Bathwater Wine I get the sense of a chorus of Afro-Angeleno Trojan women speaking these poems, with different voices picking up the recitatif: the aforementioned waitress, the woman suffering a half-desired miscarriage in "Sociopolitical Abuse (2)," the cynical older cousin aiding her younger cousin in a misguided manhunt (in cars again) in "delphi's tale," the mother whose delinquent son stole the loaded gun from beneath shoe boxes in her closet in "Unfinished Ghost Story (7)," the pregnant and restless young wife of "Dominoes," the witness to a Central Avenue cops-and-gangstas shootout in "Dream 1225." There's also a woman wryly but deeply appreciative of the sweetness of quotidian eroticism in and out of bed, conjugal love still highly spiced, in an LA garden apartment ("Marriage by Capture"), in yet another car at a drive-in movie ("The Broken Car Window"), in an inner-city laundromat ("mini soap opera"), in a junk/antique shop ("The Ron Narrative Reconstructions").

The lively center of Bathwater Wine is a sequence of sixty "More American Sonnets," irregularly metered, sometimes rhymed fourteen-liners that encapsulate the book's themes, and from which the longer sequences preceding and following seem to radiate. Here Coleman also pays homage to other poets, contemporary and canonical, sometimes wryly, sometimes with the larger-than-life extravagance that characterizes all her work: E. Ethelbert Miller, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Michelle Clinton, Sesshu Foster, receive tips of her (velvet, feathered) hat, as do Blake, Brecht, Elinor Wylie, Vallejo and the too-often overlooked Henri Coulette. While the voice of these sonnets is the poet's rather than that of an invented persona, the range of tone and discourse she employs is operatic, from slangy to matter-of-fact to improvisationally surreal:

"you're a good man, sistuh," a lover sighed solongago.
"keep your oil slick and your motor running.
   (#35)

and sometimes when i feel the first ache of new menses
weeping for my children blues me over.
   (#58)

blueprinted here in the sizzling breath of righteous
black ink, swaggers the sweaty kingfish, sliding
between grooves of crocodile blues, eluding the pungent
crypt reserved for eloquent dabblers in nose candy...
   (#73)

my recalcitrant darling, what do i mean about
you? arms unraveling becoming independent
again....
   (#75)

here comes dat nasty music again
that atmospheric ash
twenty-dollar tips & a whiff of tar-tainted denim
   (#83)

Demotic, idiosyncratic, at once celebratory and embittered, Coleman's poems are not always easy or reassuring reading. But the generosity of their larger-than-life extravagance, their careful tempering of self-mockery, their elastic balance of overstatement and control, make them a continual, renewable reward.

Marilyn Hacker


More American Sonnets #51

in my last incarnation i inoculated myself
with oodles of dago red and stumbled into fame
without falling. i worshipped in the temple of Lady Day
and took Coltrane as my wizard. i always wore my mink coat
to the Laundromat and drank pale champagne with my

soft-boiled eggs. i believed King Kong got a raw deal.
i believed great and prolonged sex cured cancer. i believed
in the afterdeath. i was liberator of cough-and-gaggers
from the cages of their spew. i scavenged rusted auto parts,
built a niggah machine, loaded it with atomic amour and

wiped out all purveyors of poverty...swapped my pink
pearl for a black sapphire. and then one quincentennial
i rose from the magnificent effluvium of my jazz
to discover my children did not know me

Wanda Coleman

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