Reviewed March 23, 2012 by Phillip B. Williams.
The title of Khadijah Queen’s latest collection of poems, Black Peculiar, has its history. The opening section of the book is titled “Black Peculiar :: Energy Complex” and through a subheading (“analogies to imaginary letters to various facets of the self”) Queen makes sure that the double colons scattered throughout the poems functions as a sticky board of allegorical possibilities, both defining conditions and labels and effectively confining such definitions to signifiers that carry an unconscious cultural and historical legacy. Queen begins with analogies and miniature letters, assessing the quality of her own word relationships through contradiction, emphasis on the ridiculous, and violent upheavals of meaning.
The paired words and phrases are informed by multiple cultural identities that feed the possibilities of the analogy. This sense of double-speak is ubiquitous throughout the book’s three sections and the language bypasses only fuel the tension between not only what is said and meant, but who speaks and means. The wisdom of naming a book Black Peculiar is knowing that these peculiarities are, in fact, historical realities for Blacks and are peculiar only to those defining blackness outside the cultural and historical interior of Black people. The title functions as both an echo (Black and peculiar as analogous) and a rebellious call-and-response (Blacks denying the exteriorly created and thus peculiar “Black” while simultaneously creating a space indicative of the sense of history faced, endured, and understood by Black people).
I’ll match the form Khadijah implements in the first section of this book:
Now take for instance the book’s opening, mysterious analogy:
“Marked upon” by whom? Under what circumstances and to what extreme? Dark in relation to whom? Dark only because of negation, a “not is and therefore am”? Already the landscape of the poem sets itself up for beautiful conflict; the reader is forced into a heavy investigation and interrogation of her own unconscious complicities about identity and how such complicities inform and effect relationships with others, how one is to navigate these thin-walled spaces. When moving into such territories, one must also consider who identifies and who is being identified. Queen manages to enact this struggle in the first letter that follows the “marked upon” analogy:
Here, Queen critiques the ventriloquism of identity, written upon, “marked upon,” and therefore covered in meaning outside of the subject’s control. The subject moves into the object, even the abject. I could automatically fill in the space with the group that readily comes to mind (women, Blacks, Latinos, same-gender-loving, the penniless etc), but part of the strength of Queen’s project is the agency it grants the reader, allowing one’s own desire to categorize and criticize to work alongside the poems, even if such proximity requires one to approach actual suffering. The relationships between her analogy/letter duos not always this salient; sometimes, the logic is unreliably askew, jolty:
Sometimes, the logic is disruptive, disturbing in its adherence to an emotional rather than a syntactical pulse:
Sometimes the analogies seem arbitrary, devoid of logic, more ornamental:
Although her intentions can be somewhat mysterious, Queen is confident and consistent with what she wants to say and how to say it, making the here-and-there jolts of logic a substantial part of the project: something, someone, eventually, must be broken.
Some of the poems are loaded with taxonomies, oscillating from larger issues of identity down to the minutiae of daily rituals (cooking, watching over a child, etc.). Thus, embedded here are all the complexities of is-ness—the unavoidable nuances of race, gender, and those other identifying markers that are always present within any situations, even if their presence goes ignored or unseen, a privilege available only to those unwilling or unable to grapple with such conditions. Here, that privilege is decimated. Queen is not interested in entertaining you, reader; she wants to hurt you:
With their familiar and almost comforting return to a balance of logic and rhetoric, the prose poems of the book’s second section, Animus, help to balance the more experimental work in the collection. Here, Queen’s striking ability to subtly, yet strongly address political issues is everywhere on display. The mutating syntax of her prose houses a kind of torrid violence. In her poem “Mostly to uncover the reality of my destructive hunger,” Queen writes:
Harsh lessons: the art of a man teaching a woman how to be domestic, of teaching what it means to want to feed a family, to cook, to be expected to find joy in those acts. However, this lesson is not readily accepted by the speaker, as she shows apprehension to even say what she has learned: “…in order. In order that I might see.” It is this back and forth between knowing what is happening and refusing such knowledge that pushes Queen’s poems into a territory that is at once unimaginable and wholly realistic. The poems seem to say “These contradictions and ironies are real life. Don’t fuck with me,” as their absurdity becomes less humorous, more discomforting, turning what is considered a societal norm (giving birth, naturally falling into motherhood) toward the grotesque. For instance, consider the following sentences from the middle of her poem “Mostly to uncover the reality of my inferior mothering”:
Because of its immediacy, this poem, like the others in Animus, manages to anchor the book within a more literal world; without out this section, the other two would risk floating in a space of perhaps.
The third and final section, Non-Sequitur ( a disjointed chorus in three acts ), is comprised of poems written as a play, complete with acts and scene changes; or it is a play written as poetic vignettes? Either way, the variety of speakers here seems all too familiar. But again, the question is familiar to whom:
From the whiteness-as-default attitude of THE BLONDE INSTITUTION and THE FONDLED HAIR’S soft but stern declaration “No” (as in “No, you cannot, should not, and if you have already will not touch me again”) to the BROWN VAGINA’s solemn understanding that being brown makes it unfeminine (and being both brown and a vagina makes it an animal), Queen manages to engage and enact issues of what constitutes race, our expectations of gender, and the problems of class; that she does this all within nine short “lines” is stunning; one could argue that there is more cultural critique here than the Africana Encyclopedia. Even technology gets knocked around a bit, but Queen uses the contextual proximity of the other racially charged and gender challenging characters to add an almost telepathic intensity to THE ONLINE PAYMENTS. Could the person accessing this account be of color, more than likely a working-class woman? But what would someone of a different race and/or gender read into the non-identity of these characters?
Queen’s precise word choice, as well as her skill with placing shoulder-to-shoulder different ideas that evolve with and enhance each other gives her work a fluidity and inevitability—a predetermined navigation that does not feel predetermined. Here, the reader is delicately close to becoming co-creator, shifting between possible meanings, as Queen’s own work intersects with the baggage one brings to it. Take for instance this excerpt from Scene 4:
The three characters communicate with each other beyond dialogue, between ideologies. THE 40% DISCOUNT echoes THE READYMADE BRIDE’s anxiety, while THE READYMADE BRIDE gives context to THE PREHEATED OVEN, and THE PREHEATED OVEN offers a backstory to THE 40% DISCOUNT. All of this intermingling connects with the economic stress experienced by an anti-feminist woman whose “kitty” (read cutesy “gross femininity” and vagina’s “sexual objectification/currency measuring her worth”) is not “hot enough” or ready to delve into the high demands of society’s explicit, constraining orders. Not only does Queen make the 40% DISCOUNT a critique of economical woes, she also makes into currency THE READYMADE BRIDE’s ability to become a successful, archetypical woman, as well as a successful sex object.
Even within those chaotic moments where Queen’s language swirls and spirals away from itself, there is still the semblance of the real world. Amongst all the static, Khadijah Queen manages to make some sense and beauty from the most arbitrary and insistent ways we allow ourselves to come undone.
Phillip B. Williams's BRUISED GOSPELS recently won BLOOM’S inaugural chapbook competition. He is a Cave Canem graduate and current poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry.