Litchfield, CT: Argos Books, 2015. 120 pages. $16.00.
I’m no herbalist, but this is what I know about medicinal plants: When it comes to healing humans, our plant friends aren’t entirely straightforward—rosemary can both raise and lower blood pressure, and sage, although it calms inflammation in some body systems, can invigorate others. And yet medicinals aren’t contradictory, either: most abortifacients, for example, also work as aphrodisiacs, which makes pretty good, if circuitous, sense.
Circuitous sense might be one of the coolest things that poetry and plants have in common, so it’s fitting that Khadijah Queen’s latest collection, Fearful Beloved, begins with the first part—or I want to say scene, or song, or shot—of her long poem “bloodroot.” The poem’s parts, which appear at intervals throughout the rest of the book’s first half, are both very plain and very strange; they juxtapose text modified from a National Park Service article on the bloodroot plant (a North American native medicinal) with dreamy, sometimes frightening or bleak, oracular images of an unnamed girl/woman interacting with animals, landscapes, and hazardous forces: sometimes “hiding in trees”; sometimes “wringing a chicken’s neck”; sometimes “tearing at blackened fibers covering her body”; sometimes “caught aiming—not yet shooting”; sometimes “speaking to animals who bow their heads to listen.” Sometimes the “bloodroot” scenes don’t refer to or contain any human noun, but simply list clauses that describe a non-human subject:
mute among the howling winds
scattered among dashes of red
but sticky as coagulated seeds
in hands sufficiently numb
absolute fires burning a body
Girl or woman or fire as subject, “bloodroot”’s dispersed scenic parts strike me, in their relationship to the rest of the collection, exactly as “absolute fires burning a body,” “scattered among dashes of red”—they’re the affective linchpins, the foundational images weird and raw, introducing and reiterating all of Fearful Beloved’s essential themes: damage, violence, healing, hiding, hiding-as-healing, femininity and femaleness, and a kind of paralysis that could either get you sawed in half, or, with the right magic words, could see you rolling a lazy cigarette behind the building when the magician waves his hand and opens up the assistant-length box.
Queen’s book contains many circles and sequences. The parts of “bloodroot” weave and leap-frog with other poem cycles, including the titular sequence (which itself consists of three distinct, interwoven cycles), and that cycling, that returning and re-working, relates closely to the book’s engagement with the politics of inertia. Or maybe I should say the politics of acquiescence; in many different ways, Fearful Beloved contemplates what it can mean to give in, to give up.
The speakers of these poems face all sorts of challenges: physiological pain, radical non-listening, anxiety’s appeal, misogyny, trauma, war. Queen, a US military veteran, doesn’t need to show us images of massive, federally-funded violence; instead she sketches small intense scenes of interpersonal abuse. “I told the Navy neurologist my wrists hurt,” begins one poem. “He held my hands, palms up, as if to examine, then bent them abruptly back. Showed no emotional response when I screamed.” Later, in the poem “Tulare,” “neighborhood boys fond of grinding // their crotches into snatched girls” also like to kill stray kittens with bats and then “come back / to piss on the remains.” Laced throughout these moments of quiet or concealed violence is an awareness that confronting systems of power doesn’t always work; the boys go on assaulting snatched girls and killing kittens, “no matter what the girl says . . . & there is no punishment for the boys.” In lieu of confrontation, we’re left with the option of running away.
To escape, to give up, to run away—these moves rightfully unsettle our thinking about power and oppression. Yet Fearful Beloved flirts with escape’s appeal, with surrender’s sacredness, and with passivity’s pleasure. “I was addicted to constant suffering,” says the speaker in “Memoria,” “I smoked & smoked & smoked it. / I loved to pat my stash.” And while one could be forgiven for reading these lines as descriptive of a bad time, as perhaps they are, it’s worth noting that the poem begins, “O // There was a time when I lived in a cave of milk.” Queen asks us to consider as sacred or elemental the tangled griefs born of internalized isms, the fact that people who experience subordination or abuse don’t always survive and behave in ways that look appropriately empowered. When the poem “Buckhead” describes a brief, gorgeous sexual encounter and then concludes, “& he didn’t hurt any part of me, / even after he was gone,” I’m pained and impressed by the delicacy of those lines and how they express a gratitude I’d like to think is unnecessary.
One of the book’s most jarring poems, “Coronado,” begins, “Ask a woman who has had her nipple bitten off if she liked it.” And did she? The poem ends, “Ask her: if even after it heals, she finds those same white teeth irresistible.” I can’t tell whether “Coronado” romanticizes abuse, complicates it, or tells a story about the interior, shifting experiences of desire and power that can make abuse so difficult to name. In the end, the woman who had her nipple bitten off never tells us what exactly that bite meant for her, and this hesitation to reject literally or metaphorically painful relationships runs throughout Queen’s collection. It’s the emotional terrain of that hesitation itself rather than the blame-seeking questions I’ll admit I found myself asking (should the nipple-bitten woman leave this guy? Why is she still into him?) that Fearful Beloved maps.
I want to point out that the titular character, the fearful beloved herself (who I read as a survivor of domestic abuse, one who is called beloved but who is also afraid), first shows up in this way:
Her pin-up shape is outrageous: in highest heels, known to step on the necks of men whose jaws hit the floor as she walks by, using them as a stairway to something greater inside herself. She is blind the way a dark-adapted animal is blind, strikes at movements invisible to those accustomed to the light
Intensely visible but also blind; speechless but also possessed of powerful interiority: what strikes me is that the fearful beloved, precisely because of her injuries and anxieties, has special adaptations, special powers. The movements she strikes at are not figments of her paranoia—she responds logically to an illogical world. Her gestures may be illegible and strange, they may even read as self-destructive, but they are of her own making and she survives by them—and when she’s heading up that “stairway to something greater inside herself,” even thrives by them. Fearful Beloved gathers its power by neatly leaping around and over and through the temptation to call such adaptive gestures pathological; rather, it reminds us how difficult it is to say where the mechanisms we develop to cope with pain end and art begins.