Academic journal article Hecate

Saying Goodbye: Elegiac Subjectivity in Wanda Coleman's the World Falls Away

Academic journal article Hecate

Saying Goodbye: Elegiac Subjectivity in Wanda Coleman's the World Falls Away

Article excerpt

Many of the poems in The World Falls Away (2011), Wanda Coleman's last published solo collection, incorporate techniques already familiar to her long-time readers. She continues several series of identicallynamed poems begun in earlier collections, including pieces titled "Auguries" and "Espantalepsis"; she explores the ludic possibilities of blues and jazz culture in poems like "Riffing the Muse" and "Coltrane's 'Naima' Narrative Transmigrated by Himself"; and she styles a wide-ranging selection of pieces "after" or "for" writers as diverse as Philomene Long, Theodore Dreiser, Ted Kooser, Ron Padgett, Tess Gallagher, Sascha Feinstein, and Reetika Vazirani. The collection gains coherence, however, from its thematic focus on memory, both as a touchstone for pleasurable nostalgia and as a reminder of aspirations that will now never be realised. Those readers returning to the collection after Coleman's unexpected death in November 2013 will also be struck by its many moments of prescience. As though she sensed that only a limited time remained in which she could communicate with the public, she chose to focus on the intersections between the social and the personal, locating affinities with the ongoing depravity of the body politic within her own disintegrating physique. In "The Hives," for instance, the speaker rails against a body "made of flame and sweat." However, she tempers her desire to "tear the agony from my substance-bitten / feet, arms, back, thighs" with insight into the book's title, which suggests a resignation to the inevitability of decay. "'The world falls away' -sayeth the Queen of The Beats," the narrator observes, "and dollface my skin goes with it" (Coleman, World 36). As this passage suggests, the cost of leaving behind the pain and toil of living will inevitably be the vessel of life itself.

As if to catalogue the shapes that her memories have taken over the past forty-plus years of writing, Coleman divides The World Falls Away into four sections whose titles name various approaches to making sense of the past: "Visitations and Sightings," "Channelings," "Bleatings," and "Throbs." It is no accident that these phrases reflect a semantic progression from extrasensory perceptions to experiences situated in the body. In the earlier sections, poetic speakers apostrophise those missing from the current social dynamic, paying tribute to them both through others' words and through allusions to the lives they might have had. In "Sassafras & Morphine," Coleman evokes visions of her son Anthony, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1997. The poem begins as a straightforward narrative with "visits to the hospital then the hospice / [where] i clean up vomit, pick sheet music up off the floor / at yet another crossroad, no mercy now." Yet after this point the chronicle dissolves, replaced with a series of sensory impressions that attempt to speak the simply unspeakable. Coleman describes "the nightmare of my son's death" as an "edge deep-violet / precipice, verge" from which she might "leap, fall, or give into the push." She admits that he has "found peace" but at the cost of her own; her only wish now is to "stretch my wings / rise loudly and fly him home from Home." While this desire might seem to refuse the consolation that either a conventional afterlife or hospice could bring, it also points to the speaker's longing to assert some control over death's bleak inevitability. She counterpoints the hospital's proffered "morphine" with the folk remedy of "sassafras"; in addition to the medicine, she finds Walt Whitman's words an essential vehicle for her son's end, which she describes as '"orotund, sweeping, and final'" (World 18).1 This phrase, which opens section 42 of "Song of Myself," announces "A call in the midst of the crowd, / My own voice, orotund sweeping and final." Whitman's speaker conveys a sense of being at once surrounded by and completely separate from the public citizenry, noting seven lines later, for example, that "Folks are around me, but they are no household of mine" (Whitman 66). …

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