Black Peculiar

By Khadijah Queen

Noemi Press
December 2011

Reviewed by Prathna Lor


The title of Khadijah Queen's Black Peculiar references both the codified "peculiar institution" of the American South as well as an experimental potentiality of racial subjectivity. Queen's work relies heavily upon inversions, paradoxes, and polysemous networks of numerous possibilities in order to question, decode, and destabilize linguistic conventions. The first section "Black Peculiar :: Energy Complex," with the subheading, "analogies to imaginary letters to various facets of the self" initiates the reader into Queen's quantum-like poetics.

Marked upon :: relational dark
diabetic :: aesthetics

   Dear Puppets,
     I want to make you say things I cannot. But I don't want your
   mouths to move.

The double colon functions as an equivocating guide between two seemingly incommensurable concepts. While "Marked upon," and "relational dark" seem to implicate one another more readily (a mark as a blemish that differentiates in color, hence "relational dark"), they also exhibit polysemous potentiality, since "Marked upon" also seems to carry a violent undertone, and "relational dark" brings forth a history of racial anxiety. Queen taps into linguistic categories only to invert them, inviting us, for instance, to bridge a relationship between "diabetic" and "aesthetics." Moreover, these relationships are encouraged and augmented by sonic shifts and echoes. The rhyme, for instance, in "marked" and "dark;" "diabetic" and "aesthetic," but also in more adventurous sonic slippages, such as

peculiar to :: dark-skinned
milquetoast :: imagining

The voiceless velar plosive /k/ in "peculiar" is echoed in "dark-skinned" as well as "milquetoast." Additionally, the bilabial nasal /m/ in "milquetoast" is repeated in "imagining," and the alveolar nasal /n/ in "skinned" is also echoed in "imagining." These sonorities generate an intuitive reading process that eases the semantic maze. Interestingly, these linguistic relationships are not static.

flat stone :: space
:: iron pill

In this sequence, a geology is circulated between "stone," "unmined," "iron," and "space"—space as both a geological location as well as a cosmological space. This kind of reading allows for more interesting combinations such as:

dysphoria :: metaphysical toilets
burned tendons
:: drunken interest

Augmenting and further complicating Queen's polysemous playground are the short letters accompanying each poetic sequence. The letters serve as a contrapuntal element in form, content, and aurality. While these letters provide poetic variety and compositional juxtaposition, these more overt textual signals are sometimes weaker in their more logical streams:

action :: gardening
:: reaction

   Dear Activist,
     I have planted the revolutionary tulips. Please check back

Nonetheless, these letters in stark colloquial tones add visually contrasting elements as well as a kind of relief from the dense poetic pairings.

Dear Heavy Hand,
   You taught me well, but I admit there are times when I still
need theoretical slaps in person.

The second section, "Animus," contains prose poems which are all headed with an explanatory preamble for a title, all beginning with "Mostly to uncover" suggesting a kind of vulnerable failure or doubt. These prose poems expose a visceral aspect of the speaker that is quite often entwined with a grotesque configuration of the body. "I pressed tighter," the speaker says, "closed my mouth around my teeth." Indeed, Queen's book is mottled with carnivorous undertones:

Dear Fruit,
   I chose not to eat you today. You looked so delicious I did not
think I deserved to strip off your skin with my teeth and let your
tart sticky liquor drip  down  my throat even though I was both
hungry and thirsty. I believe there's beauty in an untouched
thing. Yes, I could have devoured you, but didn't' I am not a very
good animal. I talk too much.

With "Black Peculiar" as the nexus of our understanding, it is possible to read this section as Queen's playing upon the colonizing logic of sexualizing and bestializing the Other. Or perhaps not; the "peculiar" aspect of Queen's work is built upon the strange links between historical oppression and non-sense.

The final section, "Non-Sequitur (A Disjointed Chorus in Three Acts)," totally dislocates the reader from the previous sections. The play—which reads as a hyperbolic freak show of personified institutions, abstractions, and objects—simultaneously incites critical curiosity and repudiates it. For Queen, it is an either/or paradox of conceptualization:

A drummer downstage center playing random rhythms on a djembe, a shirtless white man playing the flute, a ballet dancer in a neon tutu, or a woman on her knees scrubbing the floor.

It is clear that Queen is intent on confusing the imagination, forcing the reader to make connections which disturb conventional nodes of reality. At the heart of such apparently nonsensical play is a critical imperative to question. Limitless in its interpretations, Queen's book taps into intuitive networks and anxieties, and demands that we uncover something sinister within ourselves.