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I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From: Khadijah Queen’s “Black Peculiar”

Weeks ago I offered students several lines from several poems, and asked them to grab a line and write a golden shovel poem. I’d been turned on to this form from a friend who became quite obsessive in making these tiny art objects. Like many teachers, I decided to do the exercise with the students; they were, after all, freshmen and sophomores in a literature class, and I was, after all, a writer who swears against forms, on the regular. I immediately grabbed the first line from the poem, “Mostly to uncover the reality of my soothing brand of sickness” in the Animus section of Khadijah Queen’s second poetry collection, The Black Peculiar, winner of the Noemi Press Book Award: “I called a dangerous man my husband and something inside me loved it”. This was a random selection, where the page landed when I opened it, and a quarter of the class also selected that line. For a group of students in a Black Women Writers class to select that line, well, that said something. But what? And, more importantly, what does the line itself say about the startling clarity and steadfast (and feastable) honesty in this collection?

The final section of Queen’s The Black Peculiar, a 3-act play entitled “Non-Sequitur [A Disjointed Chorus in Three Acts],” is perhaps the most thrilling section of this book, in great part because of the unexpectedness of having this play appear (although, considering the frame of the book, opening with a selection of half-analogies that are accompanied by small letters, and ending with this play, the fact of a play itself is not that startling, on subsequent readings). The players in “Non-Sequitur” are a collection of (stereo)types that appear throughout the collection, a “chronic accompanier,” a “frazzled evaluator,” a “budding wife,” and a “sober conservationist”. Less animated characters include an “event calendar,” a “dirty rag,” “online payments,” and “hand me-down pinking shears”. The play takes these (stereo)types and puts them in compressed non-circumstances/non-situations, removing all conventional elements of a play: conflict, tensions, dénouement, plot; language is so compacted that it’s often difficult to recall that there are speakers. This density leaves room for assumptions, which is an expected underbelly of stereotypes, and occasionally these assumptions work in favor of the scenes, but often the assumptions are troubling.

In the first act, appropriately called “The Setup,” I felt set-up. The characters: “The Brown Vagina,” “The Blonde Institution,” “The Online Payments,” “The Fondled Hair,” and “The White Appropriation” are flat, and their monologue-y dialogue is so dense, that it requires readers to enter into their scene with preconceived ideas about these figures. Each disembodied character holds its own expected idea: The Brown Vagina is highly sexualized and has only one function: to use the vagina as a sexual entry point. The Brown Vagina is well-aware of its utility and its expectation to give itself to, presumably, The Blonde Institution, itself a not surprising player who, I assume functions as a reminder of the history of institutionalized race and racism in the U.S. It’s unclear if The Online Payments responds to The Brown Vagina, The Blonde Institution, or both, but because of its quirky insertion in this scene, The OP stands out. The Fondled Hair and The White Appropriation do as they’re expected: talk about touching or not touching hair and stands in shadows taking notes, stealing what’s good and leaving behind what’s not. Here is the opening exchange:

The Brown Vagina: I am still not female
The Blonde Institution: I am never invisible.
The Online Payments: Your payment was rejected.
The Fondled Hair: No.
The White Appropriation: (Moves slightly into shadow)
(48)

The nod to the Theatre of the Absurd is clear (note the scenes in which all of the players are inanimate objects). The players have no room to be real; they politely take turns speaking, no verbal intrusions or interruptions, and each person speaks in their proper place. There’s a performance of proper behavior, although the players themselves are being called out in their unnamed labeling. The White Appropriation never speaks and The Blonde Institution will always just be itself. They embody cliché. However, at first read, the play is alarmingly brilliant. With the great assemblage of characters (I counted about 44), Queen deftly arranged the characters to capture the essential ridiculousness of, perhaps, interactions between persons and their objects that are invulnerable and unwilling to scratch beneath the surface.

In contrast to the flattened characters of the play, the middle section of the book, the Animus poems, are a series of emotions fleshed out. The project of Animus seems to be, in fact, a fleshing out, with each poem’s title beginning “Mostly to uncover the reality”. In an interview with Rachelle Cruz, Queen paused to consider how to articulate writing these poems, and hesitated on the word “purging”; yet, that seems like a fine word for how some of the Animus poems work. But within that catharsis, within that personal circle of despair, sits a willingness to, yes, uncover and speak many, as Cruz notes, “everyday terrors” and truths.

In “Mostly to uncover the reality that I give myself a seed,” the narrator exposes a man who expects his woman to have some mystical charm: “He smelled my sweated yellow sheets and said I had lost my voodoo. He said I needed to get South, more South and said I should never go home even though I am being sent for” (41). How many of us have had that man? The Animus poems are not easy to read, depending as they do on sheer honesty of expression, of self, of the ugliest and prettiest selves. As well, the syntactical structure gives power to the subject position, “He” (10 of the 15 poems in this section begin “He {verb} me”), which places the object, the “I/eye” in a position of submission, of victim. Because, however, the poems suggest an attempt to “uncover” to make visible the invisible self, perhaps it makes sense for this syntactical structure, to write oneself out of the shadow of an overbearing “he” (say, for example, a Blonde (or Invisible) Institution).

My barometer for a great book of poems is discomfort—have these poems discomforted me in some way or other. Queen’s poems certainly often do just that. From “Mostly to uncover the reality of my inferior mothering”, the narrator confesses: “I even gave birth to an orphan. I smothered him into silence. I dropped him on his beautiful head when he let go of my breast” (31). The half-analogies in the opening sequence, while a delightful play and smashing of language, gives me great pause: what are the correlations between (some of) the pairings? And the double-colons signal, in terms of analogies, the connection between two unlike pairings. For example: kumquat : fruit : : turnip : vegetable. Queen’s pairings rely on a double colon, and I’m not quite sure how it functions (as a double-backing of the analogy, perhaps?). Yet, it’s the figuring it out that draws me back, that confounds me, that brings me intense pleasure.

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Metta Sáma
Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks, 2012) & South of Here (New Issues Press, 2005, published under her legal name, Lydia Melvin). Her poems, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Diner, Esque, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Verse, Vinyl, Zone 3, among others. She is the fiction editor of ragazine and Social Media and Marketing intern at Her Circle Ezine.
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