Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Spring  2002

Mercurochrome by Wanda Coleman  


Mercurochrome: New Poems
Wanda Coleman
Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press
270 pp. $17 (paper); $30 (cloth trade)



In “Essay on Language (7),” a poem from her new collection, Mercurochrome, Wanda Coleman spins a line that reads: “… given a voice, one must struggle with one’s own social type-casting on the edge of ambiguity.” In many ways, the sentiment represents a sharply focused assessment of her work and approach. In Mercurochrome, she walks both sides of the fence between a strong literary universality and an inherently powerful racial identity. The Watts-born Coleman’s struggle to come to terms with her social and racial type-casting gives the book an interesting gestalt, making it seem a considered dance between the African-American personal and a broader appreciation of literary archetype and standard. She handles the turns well, giving legitimate props to her cultural background without distancing those from other cultural backgrounds—not an easy task. For a number of years, many young (and some not so young) African-American poets have been given to broad pronouncements of frustration and anger—with good reason, of course. The oppressed have a perfect right, even a responsibility, to cry freedom; however, in these early days of new millennium, it is a strange truth that such rights have been exercised to such an extent that many such protests have begun to sound somewhat cliché through overuse. In a way, this descent into cliché shows a degree of social promise, for when people of many races recognize a single race’s cries as cliché it is a sign that that oppression has lessened and that the voices of the oppressed have been significantly heard and given due credence. Coleman is a living example of this social progression, and throughout Mercurochrome, she strikes a perfect balance between her reality as a woman of color in America and her readers’ need to connect and identify regardless of origin.

Coleman’s language use is superb throughout, brave yet measured, touching down in differing intellectual and social spheres just long enough to please a spectrum of tastes yet never remaining in any one long enough to alienate or bore. Her assured and inventive imagery often thrills the reader, only rarely showing signs of poetic self-consciousness or overt agenda. “South Central Los Angeles Death Trip 1982” (from a section titled “Metaphysically Niggerish”) is a bit of overstated though pertinent racial history, but it is only one patch of many sewn into a multi-hued work along with sections like “Retro Rogue Anthology,” where Coleman delves deeply into the nuts and bolts of poetry, playing off a number of established poets like Patchen, Shapiro, Levertov, Borges, Bly, and others. Levity and well-handled allusion on a craft level always earns our respect, and poems like the play on Allen Ginsberg had us laughing out loud in simultaneous appreciation and recognition.

Mercurochrome won a National Book Award recently, and while we have to give Ms. Coleman an obligatory rubber-band snap on the wrist for her insistence on the lowercase form of the personal pronoun—why she of all people would seek to marginalize herself in this manner is a mystery—we do find the work substantial and elegant in its style, language, and approach, thus finding no reason to debate the NBA assessment. We can state with a fond degree of security that Wanda Coleman stands as a vital and important figure in modern American poetry, and Mercurochrome shows her at her highest level of accomplishment. 

– CAW –