by Douglas Manuel, Spalding’s School of Writing Poetry Faculty
When I moved to the L.A. area in 2013, I didn’t know much about Wanda Coleman. I didn’t know she was known as the “L.A. Blueswoman.” I didn’t know she was the low-key, real, unofficial Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. I didn’t know about her Lenore Marshall Prize. I didn’t know about Mercurochrome being a finalist for the National Book Award. I didn’t know about her coming for Maya Angelou (All love and praise due to Maya Angelou though!) and writing that A Song Flung Up to Heaven “seem[ed] small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision.” Honestly, and this hurts me the most to admit, I hadn’t even read a single poem of Coleman’s before she died on November 22, 2013. And even worse, I didn’t even go to her memorial at the downtown L.A. Central Public Library that January of the following year. What a fool I am, what a fool!
Maybe it was the day after her memorial, maybe it was a week, maybe it was months: I don’t know. But I do know that one day while looking for another book, I found a copy of Coleman’s Ostinato Vamps on one of my shelves. One afternoon later, and I was finished with the book, and Wanda Coleman was instantly one of my favorite poets of all time. Despite Publishers Weekly thinking that these poems from Ostinato Vamps were “markedly less verbally dazzling” than her work in Mercurochrome and Bathwater Wine, I found myself totally enthralled by Coleman’s work. Ostinato and vamp are both musical modes of repetition. This title is more than fitting, as I enjoy the musicality of her poems so very much. I also really dig the way her employment of the lowercase and her sparse use of punctuation demands the reader’s attention and creates many meaning-making possibilities through lineation. Coleman’s work elevates off the page in song and cuts you as deeply as the blues does. It bruises you. The first poem of the collection, “Revenants,” begins with this sonic gem: “under the dark gnarled word / the tongue moves slowly.” Goodness, how those R-sounds roll and rake across the tongue! And the gorgeous manner in which those harsh R-sounds simmer down to the smooth and elongated sounds of “moves slowly.” The Oo-sound in “move” and the L- and E-sounds in “slowly” work as counterpoint to the previous line so nicely. There is such a delicate and controlled attention to sonic craft here. I am so here for it!
Today, however, I’d like to talk about a different poem from that collection. Today, as I mourn George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (And all the others slain by the police or white terrorists vigilantes. The list is so long I can’t even have all the names here because of the space it would take.), I am thinking of Coleman’s poem “Requiem for a Nest.” I am thinking about how black folks can’t protect our babies. I am thinking about how often we build these beautiful nests of love with whatever we have. Sometimes it’s just with the little we can scrape together because oftentimes life isn’t too kind to us. Institutional and systemic racism never sleeps! As I imagine “the winged thang” happily building her nest in the poem, I see George Floyd crying for his mother, I see Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, searching the hospital for her daughter, I see Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, weeping for her son on Mother’s Day, I see my future unborn children, and I am afraid and so deeply dejected.
In “Requiem for a Nest,” some readers may only see a speaker lamenting the approaching destruction of a bird’s nest, and maybe I’ve only seen this reading of the poem, too, until now. But just as I was late to learning about Wanda Coleman’s greatness, oftentimes it takes a while for knowledge to catch up to me. So today, as I read “Requiem for a Nest,” the final quintet of the sonnet (Here, as is often the case in her work, Coleman slightly remixes the sonnet form and buffs up the usual octave by adding an extra line and reduces the usual sestet by taking a line away.), I can only think about the precarity of black bodies. And, yes, in other poems in Coleman’s catalogue, we can find her more directly addressing this subject matter. But there’s just something about this “winged thang,” this bird “following her nature” and “creat[ing] a hatchery for her spawn not knowing all were doomed” that made me choke up, that made me keen over the fact that none of us, especially black folks and other minoritized folks, are safe anywhere at all.
Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. His first full-length collection of poems, Testify (Red Hen Press, 2017), won the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry. He currently lives in Long Beach, California.