The Sting of Mercurochrome


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) was a politically active, socially aware poet who took great joy in pushing the limits of what poetic forms and language could do. She’s also somewhat infamous for her extremely negative review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven, which earned her a lot of grief from the Black literary community. Her response to the controversy, which was published in The Nation in 2002, contains a lot of strong—and possibly unpopular—opinions about writing excellence in the context of the history of the African American literary tradition. And she honestly didn’t care whether you agreed with her or not. She was too busy promoting, and creating, her own version of excellence.

The poems presented in Mercurochrome (2001) reflect that excellence in a deep, passionate engagement with both language and culture. As readers, we know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into because Coleman tells us flat-out in the lead-off poem, “The Language Beneath the Language”:

thus you hold me
frozen in your doubtful vision
in your study of my brownness. believe
my curious fingers. trust my
daring fingers
as they probe your opened wound… (15).

mercurochromeIn other words, reader, the book you hold in your hands is not meant to be comfortable. Coleman is out to engage you, and the engagement will not always be pleasurable. If you are willing to be uncomfortable, however, your mind will get blown wide open. And that’s never a bad thing, in the long run.

Divided into six sections, Mercurochrome explores the Black American experience by subverting conventional poetic forms. In Section III, for example, “American Sonnets,” Coleman takes a style many contemporary readers find tedious and manipulates it into something a lot more interesting:

widely widely i open to love. my country
impregnates with seed of hate. conjecture?
no. this mad fornication i endure, jealous
contrary to reason, foolish in my fantasy
that i too am cherished…(95).

By using the classic poetry of love to indicate where love is lacking is more than just clever. It’s a direct criticism of what America has promised, but not provided.

The volume’s title is made clear to the reader in “Letter to My Older Sister (5)”:

as i live it seems more like Mercurochrome
     than anything else
i can conjure up. it looks so pretty and red,
     and smells of a balmy
coolness when you uncap the little applicator.
     but swab it on an
open sore and you nearly die under the stabbing
     burn (70).

And there are a lot of open sores that need healing, including the commodification of Black culture (“Paper Riot”), police brutality (“South Central Los Angeles Deathtrip 1982”), and even the banal quality of most contemporary poetry (“Essay on Language (6)”). For all that it stings, however, Coleman’s lyrics also advocate standing one’s ground:

i am blackness waking
my mother’s face on my father’s gift
i am the utter meaning
immesurable, sensual and stark
i am the jetflow of subterranean events
my father’s gentleness on my mother’s savagery
i am blackness. the awakening (24).

Although it may often sting like a poison, Mercurochrome is Coleman’s lyrical attempt at a cure. If you’d like a bigger dose of her medicine, click on over to the Library catalog and reserve a copy, or try another one of Coleman’s collections on for size.

–Leigh Anne


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4 responses to “The Sting of Mercurochrome

  1. Sheila

    Very well done, and quite interesting.

  2. Beth

    Thanks for this posting, Leigh Anne. Good stuff and always good to make us ‘uncomfortable’ once in a while!

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