Academic journal article Hecate

Consuming Figures: Wanda Coleman, Writing, and the Flesh

Academic journal article Hecate

Consuming Figures: Wanda Coleman, Writing, and the Flesh

Article excerpt

Wanda Coleman's reputation as a poet of the city of Los Angeles eclipses much else about her career. Literary critics have codified her as among the most important of L.A. writers, and she has been included in anthologies of Los Angeles literature more frequently than any other poet.1 Coleman's writing about L.A. draws upon recognisable rhetorical tropes from the cultural history and collective imaginary of the Southern California metropolis, creating a complex portrait of the city as a battleground for class conflict and racial prejudice, and as a coy but unsatisfying lover. In fact, her poetic itineraries of the city as a lived geography suggest that cognitive maps of L.A. are indeed possible and even necessary as an aesthetic tool to survive its volatile landscape.

Acknowledging how Coleman uses writing to explore urban experience, we might also ask how Coleman's urban imagination portrays writing in particular ways. In this essay, my aim is to extend our understanding of how her poems point-from within the nexus of place, space, and race-toward a powerful philosophy of writing that makes visible cross-gender and cross-racial relationships of cultural and literary consumption, and contests the consuming powers of a white readership. Rather than constitute a "de-territorialising" move, this shift reveals how Coleman's contextualisation as an African American Angelina shapes her poetics in ways that go beyond representations of urban life and Southern California street- and seascapes. I demonstrate that some of the very same tropes that Coleman uses to represent Los Angeles, especially the figure of the cannibal or poacher, are redeployed in her exploration of power and agency in other domains, particularly writing, and I attempt to think through some of the implications of this figuration.

Drawing on individual poems, archival research, and African American and feminist cultural criticism, I argue that Coleman focuses our attention on consuming figures-specifically the rhetorical cannibalism of "flesh-eaters"-as part of a theorisation of the work of negotiating power between cultural producers and consumers, most notably between men and women and readers and writers. In poems that focus on the city, Coleman establishes consumption as a problematic that encompasses systemic and microaggressive practices of socioeconomic oppression and cultural appropriation. But elsewhere, she shows how it can serve, more broadly, as a sign of desire itself and thus of subjectivity, including the desire to achieve particular outwardly visible manifestations of the gendered body, and even the writerly imperative to make use of the materials of one's own and others' lives in the work of representation. In her meta-commentary on the process of literary consumption, however, Coleman implicates those readers, especially white readers, who desire forms of knowledge simply to reinforce and reauthorise a position of social dominance. Coleman ultimately undercuts the fantasies of consumption that animate many of her poems, and in so doing she shifts from thinking through the powerful desires that fuel consumption toward a stronger articulation of responsibility and reciprocity between producer and consumer. This is, perhaps, what we might think of as Coleman's poetics of flesh: a mode of wielding power through language to confront racial prejudice and patriarchal power and to leave the imagined reader-as much as the writer-touched, marked, and rendered visible as a consumer through this process.

In offering the phrase poetics of flesh as an analytic tool for reading Wanda Coleman's poetry, I invoke a term richly theorised in African American studies, beginning with Hortense Spillers's monumental 1987 essay, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." In this essay, Spillers theorises a distinction between the "body" and the "flesh," a distinction necessitated by the historical trauma of the transatlantic slave trade, in which the captive African body comes to be "ungendered," "severed. …

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