Poem: American Sonnet 18

Wanda Coleman’s work has that ineffable quality that accompanies poetry you understand in your belly and your head. And so when she says, “my delicious dilemma is language,” it makes all the sense in the world that she would invent her own American sonnet, a riff on the old song that allows the improvisation and stricture needed to get to this “place where all the lives/are planted in my eyes.” This poem, from her new book of selected works, “Wicked Enchantment,” is classic Coleman: You get the jazz, the soul and also the idiosyncrasy. It is an unmistakable style that propels a Coleman poem, and draws us into it.

American Sonnet 18

By Wanda Coleman
after June Jordan

this is the place where all the lives
are planted in my eyes. black things writhe
on the ground. red things gush from
volcanic gaseous tremblings/become blood and light
mountains of flesh raging toward rapturous seas
where crowns of trees inspired by flame extol the night

(my abysmal hear compels the moon compels
wave upon wave. compels reason)

the tombs are fertile with sacred
rememberings. the ancient rhymes. the
disaster of couplings. the turbulent blaze of
greed’s agonies. shadows reaching for time and time
unraveling and undone.

sky river mother — your tongue plunders my mouth

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in the magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) wrote 20 books of poetry and prose. Her collection “Bathwater Wine” was the winner of the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Illustration by R.O. Blechman

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