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At The Volta: “Khadijah Queen is not interested in entertaining you, reader…”
Khadijah Queen’s book Black Peculiar (Noemi Press, 2011) is reviewed for today’s Friday Feature over at The Volta. So you’re aware of the structure, SPD tells us that the “three long works in the collection weave the personal and the political in both ruthless and tender ways. A fiction, a chorus, a leap into chaos, an unflinching love letter and a fierce indictment—BLACK PECULIAR collages observation and lived experience through a many-voiced ‘I’ as flawed and complex and unusual as the mind of the artist in the world.” Of the first section, titled “Black Peculiar :: Energy Complex”, Phillip B. Williams at The Volta writes:
Queen makes sure that the double colons scattered throughout the poems function 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).
Williams notes that “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.” To do this, one must look closely at the analogies in the work:
Sometimes, the logic is disruptive, disturbing in its adherence to an emotional rather than a syntactical pulse:
stumble :: mirror
hunger :: caught throat
Dear Friend-maker Inside Me,
What does it mean when giving compliments is a chore?
And receiving them like an unfamiliar smack? Please don’t
ask me to blame my alcoholic mother.
Sometimes the analogies seem arbitrary, devoid of logic, more ornamental:
rarified :: mythos
fragmentation :: collusion
Only a cynic like you would hold my unconscious obsession with rabbits against me.
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:
Dear Biore Pore Strip,
Skin misrepresents itself. I haven’t the heart to repair such
intentional damage. Ripping dirt from the microscopic holes in my
face seems cruel; while scientifically sebum from pores, I prefer to be
real about my shit.
Read about the following sections in the book, one of which, Animus, is comprised of prose poems; and the other, Non-Sequitur ( a disjointed chorus in three acts ), of poems written as a play. Of this piece, Williams writes, “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.”