Excerpt From: Camille Paglia's - "BREAK, BLOW, BURN."
Wanda Why Aren't You Dead
wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda. that's a whore's name
wanda why ain't you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a
why don't you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can't you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you---------------------------10
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don't like black men
tell me you're ac/dc. tell me you're a nympho. tell me you're
wanda i don't think you really mean that------------------15
you're joking. girl, you crazy
wanda what makes you so angry
wanda i think you need this
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious
wanda i didn't know i was hurting you---------------------20
that was an accident
wanda i know what you're thinking
wanda i don't think they'll take that off of you
wanda why are you so angry
i'm sorry i didn't remember that that that------------------25
that that that was so important to you
wanda you're ALWAYS on the attack
wanda wanda wanda i wonder
why ain't you dead
"A poem struggles to be born. The poet's mind is invaded by a raucous
gang of nags, snoops, gripers, and doomsayers. Wanda Coleman's
eponymous protagonist at first seems invisible. But the haranguing
voices, with their multiple points of view, gradually sketch her ghost
portrait, like a shimmering hologram. Making us share her exasperation
and despair, she gains substance and presence until by the end she
looms like an avenging Fury, beating off all opponents and willing the
poem into existence.
Coleman's vernacular is so alive it practically jumps off the page.
The snatches of boisterous conversation, as if overheard on the street
or through a window, become hilarious through sheer excess. We get
slang and profanity ("ain't," "goddamn") as well as African-American
syncopated speech rhythms and idiomatic verb forms (a man "want"
rather than "wants"; "girl, you crazy"; "you too serious"; 4, 16, 19).
There's a strange effect of claustrophobia yet speed, produced by the
absence of stanza breaks and full punctuation. We can't escape the
chattering racket. Language is an affliction or epidemic. Eleven
questions (including the title) stream by without a question mark
because the interrogators don't really want answers. Their loaded
questions are acts of hostile encroachment-or at least that's how the
poet processes them in her cynicism and fatigue.
Coleman's persona adopts a stoic silence like George Herbert's in "The
Quip," where the poet is derided by worldly temptations. Herbert
italicizes his inner voice ("But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me")
because it's unheard-or rather heard only by the reader. Coleman too
uses italics to signal her inner voice of resistance to materialism
and status envy: "wanda why are you so angry"(24). But Herbert's
serene, priestly detachment is impossible for a single mother with "a
ready-made family," deemed by others an obstacle to romance (4-5).
She's enmeshed in practical responsibilities.
This poem is a classic drama of an individual pitted against the
tyranny of the group. Coleman's protagonist is in transition between
generations, races, and social classes. Little solidarity is evident
within her home community, which is portrayed as competitive and
coercive. Her habits and nascent wishes snake through the grapevine
for review and debate by a catty chorus of family, friends, lovers,
neighbors, and coworkers. Whatever her aspirations or achievements,
she is doggedly judged by her appearance and male attachments. Even
wellmeaning advice becomes subtly undermining.
Everything about her needs to be fixed-according to the meddlers whose
critiques she has dangerously begun to internalize. Her hairdo isn't
black or hip enough. She's too fat, and her feet are too big. Her
pay's mingy, her apartment's a dump, and despite all that, she should
lighten up! Her sex life is under withering scrutiny: she's used
goods, with dependents in tow. She's uppity for shunning black men-a
cunning provocation, of course, if it comes from a black man trying to
seduce her (12). Even her exotic name is reductively redefined
("that's a whore's name"), making her scrabble for every iota of
identity (2). She's bullied to embellish: any kinkiness-bisexuality,
promiscuity, sadomasochism-would be better than her humdrum self
Her tormentors' baiting insinuations mire her in subtext. "I think you
need this" is a pusher's tagline coming from an intimate: drinks or
drugs are just the elixir to normalize her-or rather to make her
receptive to the speaker's hidden agenda (18). Banal or squalid scenes
are glimpsed as if by strobe light-episodes of insensitivity,
forgetfulness, or bad or careless sex ("i didn't know i was hurting
you / that was an accident," 20-21). Medical crises make the body yet
another betrayer. "I don't think they'll take that off of you": moles,
tumors, and unplanned pregnancies all look the same to an arbitrary,
impersonal health system (23).
Strangers patronize: "wanda what is it like being black"-as if she
were an anointed spokesman for her race, ready to recite on cue and
condense an epic to an anecdote (11). The bystanders' most
presumptuous claims-"i know what you're thinking" and "i don't think
you really mean that"-evict her from her own mental space (22, 15).
The pestering voices are as mechanical as a broken record: "if i were
you were you were you"; "that that that / that that that" (10, 25-26).
Fill in the blanks. The real "hell hole" is not her shabby flat but
the echo chamber of her overwrought brain (9). Words dull and drain or
infest with clichés. The poem's refrain is her anger, alleged by third
parties. Though we don't hear her responses, the climax-"wanda you're
ALWAYS on the attack"-becomes intelligible by increments: anger is her
energizer and defensiveness her armor, allowing her to think and write
In the poem's visual design, the dense mass of negative comment rises
like a black slab, a Tower of Babel. At the end, escaping lines float
free, as if the poem were taking breath. Slowly gaining distance, the
poet muses, "wanda wanda wanda i wonder / why ain't you dead" (28-29).
The wonder is that she survives and thrives. The poem asserts the life
force amid daily wear and tear, small humiliations and frustrations.
She endures, a Wonder Woman who can't vanquish enemies but knows how
to deflect their bullets off her magic bracelets. Yoked to duty and
routine, this Wanda can't wander like Walt Whitman but must hold her
ground as she fends off the guilttrippers, parasites, and con artists.
But she turns the painful struggle for selfhood into deliciously
quirky comedy. The poem's lashing lines resemble "snaps" in an old
African-American game, the "dozens," where duelists trade mock insults
("Yo' mama's so ugly, she'd scare moss off a rock"). It's an exercise
in mental toughening: when the worst can be said, reality seems less
Chanting "wanda" nineteen times, the poem is like an exorcism,
banishing impish spirits that grasp and scratch. Who is Wanda? The
poem answers for her, as she wickedly parodies her detractors' voices.
Their yammering stops with the door slam of the last word ("dead")-the
line recapitulating the more formal, teacherly title ("aren't" rather
than "ain't"). The poet is definitely not dead: her salvation is her
grit, resilience, and commitment to art making. This poem would be
explosive in performance, with the poet's grumpy, sarcastic persona
barreling through hindrances, then pausing a beat before bursting
free. She has regained control of language and made it hers. "
Break, Blow, Burn
Written by Camille Paglia
Trade paperback Vintage
Poetry - History & Criticism
0-375-72539-3 January 2006