Too Soon to Quit, Too Late to Cry: On Wanda Coleman's Bathwater Wine
Wanda Coleman was the winner of the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for her book Bathwater Wine (Black Sparrow Press, 1998). The jurors for the award were Rafael Campo, Toi Derricotte, and Marilyn Hacker, who served as chair of the panel.
The 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize was presented to a poet whose angry and extravagant music, so far beyond baroque, has made itself heard across the divide between West Coast and East, establishment and margins, slams and seminars, across the too-American rift among races and genders (there are more than two of each) for two decades. Bathwater Wine was Wanda Coleman's tenth book. She is a prolific poet whose gift is generous, unique, and challenging, yet one whose work has not yet received the critical attention that its force, originality, and scope have merited from the beginning. She is also, astoundingly, only the second writer of color (and the sixth woman) to receive the Lenore Marshall Prize in the twenty-five years of its existence, despite its namesake's passion for social justice and despite, more relevantly, the books of necessary and indelible poetry written and published by Americans of African, Caribbean, Latino, Asian, and Native ancestry during this quarter-century. The jury that chose the 1999 winner was pleased, in citing Wanda Coleman, thus also to acknowledge the work Black Sparrow Press has done over several decades in publishing and promoting important poets out of the geographical or stylistic American mainstream.
Each successive Lenore Marshall jury has doubtless remarked, in print or in private, on the dislocating effect of reading in the space of two and a half months what was, in our case, 200 volumes of poetry, then rereading with closer attention the twenty to thirty titles that clearly merited serious consideration. With minimal interim consultation (email notwithstanding), a remarkably congruent list of titles emerged as our finalists: Besides Coleman's Bathwater Wine, we cited Marie Ponsot’s The Bird Catcher, Arthur Sze’s The Redshifting Web, Alicia Ostriker’s The Little Space, and Rachel Hadas’s Halfway Down the Hall. Each has indubitable excellences: coming to a decision on such an occasion only made us wish that there were more prizes, or, better yet, that contemporary poets had a readership, an audience attentive enough to make prizes entirely superfluous.
But for the three of us, the book that kept haunting our imaginations and demanding our attention was Bathwater Wine. Wanda Coleman, while staying firmly on her subject—a black girl's bildungsroman, a black woman's transformations by and through passion and rage—displays a verbal virtuosity and stylistic range that explodes/expands the merely linear, the simply narrative, the straightforwardly lyric, into a verbal mandala whose colors and textures spin off the page. Coleman is a poet who excels in public presentations, one whose work moves freely between the academy and the popular renaissance of poetry-as-performance in bars and coffeehouses—but her poems do not require an audible voice or physical presence; they perform themselves.
Coleman is a quintessentially urban poet, and her cityscape is very specifically that of Los Angeles, one that Americans are more accustomed to finding in films and mystery novels than in poems. The book begins in the uncinematic working-class South Central of the poet's childhood in the sequences "Dreamwalk" and "Disclosures," whose tutelary genius is the poet's father, a ring-damaged former boxer working the numbers and other hustles by day and as a "maintenance engineer" in an office building by night. He is at once larger than life with a mythic past:
at seventeen, Daddy hitched into town two
jumps ahead of a noose as the century slumped
into its thirties. liberated since the age of eight,
his greatest gifts were rhythmic hands, stalwart
eyes and major league lungs . . .
. . . he learned to shadow
the pre-war harbor ever wishful for his ship to dock
to graduate from apple tams to fedoras, from
denim overalls to pin-striped suits and wing-tips
("Arrival by Sunrise")
and defeated by "the headaches" that drove him out of the ring "into bed where he KO'd the pillows." His numinous presence for his daughter is the counterweight to a too-dark, too-smart black girl's isolation in the intricate social systems of elementary and junior high school, where, in narratives whose themes recall Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde, the voice and music are Coleman's own. She's scorned equally by the honey-colored belles and the suspicious white librarian, whose reappraisal comes too late for the suspicious, unforgiving child:
her gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like dobermans
she watched me come and go, take books and bring books
she monitored the titles and after a while decided
she'd misjudged her little colored girl
and for a time she tried to apologize in her way. to engage
in small talk. i never answered back. once, she set
special books aside to gain my trust respect smile
i left them untouched
hating her more for that
("Chapter 2 of the Story")
(Much later in the book comes a narrative about an adult cousin, a minister, who finds the child Coleman reading Marx or Nietzsche in his study, "tests" her on what she's read, and then tells her since she's so bright she'll understand that she is NEVER to touch his books again—which has an ironic resonance with the white librarian's story—and the cousin doesn't relent.)
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:
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 armit . . .
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," the cynical older cousin aiding her younger cousin in a misguided manhunt (in cars again) in "Salvation Wax: delphi's tale," the mother whose delinquent son stole the loaded gun from beneath shoe boxes in her closet in "Unfinished Ghost Story," 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 L.A. garden apartment ("Marriage by Capture"), in yet another car at a drive-in movie ("The Broken Car Window"), in an inner-city laundromat ("The Ron Narrative Reconstructions: 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."
and sometimes when i feel the first ache of new menses,
weeping for my children blues me over. . . .
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
my recalcitrant darling, what do i mean about
you? arms unraveling becoming independent
again . . .
here comes dat nasty music again
that atmospheric ash
twenty-dollar tips & a whiff of tar-tainted denim
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.