Book Review: The Work of Words
Tin House, 2020
We expect poetry to do specific things, to perform a certain way. We want it to bend. To conform. To understand itself for us, so to speak, so that we, the readers, are clear. Frequently, we forget that poetry is a hard and intentional work that must be itself. The writing of it, the actualizing of pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, is intentional. This is the poet in motion.
Khadijah Queen’s collection, Anodyne, is many things. Other reviewers have spoken to the collection’s strengths — its cleverness, its lyricality, the depth of its feminist introspection. I would like to add to these voices that Queen’s poetry is uniquely and profoundly interesting and interesting work has something important to say. Alongside the theme of feminism, Anodyne is also an exploration of profound loss, as well as feelings of angst, otherness, and regret. The poetry is intentionally constructed to both effect and uproot the reader and is companioned, thoughtfully, with notes that illustrate the poet’s intentions and further color our experience of her work.
Queen’s work does not behave on the page in traditional ways; instead, it shapeshifts, playing with your direct as well as your peripheral vision. Her arrangement of words sometimes dances from one side of the page to the next; or is stair-stepped; or held within boxes; or appears sparse upon the page. One’s initial arrogance commands the work to behave, and one is wrong for doing so. For if you insist on words behaving, you miss the moments of significant meaning—truly memorable lines that grab you, holding you fixed until they make their daring mark, as in these from “If Gold, Your Figure as Mirror on the Ground Is.”
Once a choice comes to full & the act carries the joy of struggle The winter mother severs only a chance at restarting. Could you sorrow the one unchosen thing infinitely so it feels occasional, the act is itself
These quiet moments are not only lovely but are also skillfully articulated. This is craft. This is the poet in motion.
The gift of Queen’s writing is not only in the individual lines of her art but also in the insightful beauty of her titles: “Retreat,” “If Gold, Your Figure as Mirror on the Ground Is,” “Eclogue for Personae,” “I Watch Exact In Disconnect,” “I Slept When I Couldn’t Move,” among so many other expertly chosen headers. The titles themselves are poetry, appearing as specifically and uniquely chosen. Each is a deliberate guide, walking you along the path of the collection’s story—right up to the very edge of each poem’s introductory line, until the first words deliver their meaning.
In “Dementia Is One Way to Say Fatal Brain Failure,” Queen is a mourning daughter, lamenting the fearful paradox of letting go of and holding on to a beloved parent: “Whose mind loses when the loved decline/…How do I let go of my mother before she is gone? / Predator grief doesn’t watch, yellow-eyed, from hidden grasses like a real apex / We slow-feed that wraith / Viscera.”
In the poignant “Of All the Things I Love,” she is a reflective Black mother: “Why can’t I be myself in this world, over and over he asks me, knowing I am powerless everywhere except home… / … we both know how fragile my body is compared to my mind /… How do I tell him that I am tired?”
When her writing touches upon the utter confusion of grief and the complexity of family, she strikes at tender nerve-endings, especially now during our globally shared season of illness and death. When she writes out of her Blackness, Black women (those endlessly terrified by the pushing darkness) nod in agreement, knowing what it means to live during the now moment of our collective reckoning with racism in America.
There are many lovely and painful and introspective moments like these in Queen’s poetry. What a gift it is, therefore, to emerge from these pages having leaned into these formidable poems, becoming one with the poet and her intentions