Chapbook Review: Khadijah Queen's "I'm So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had O
Khadijah Queen I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013 Digital Chapbook, $3.00 18 pages
Khadijah Queen, author of the full-length collections Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic 2008) and Black Peculiar (Noemi 2010), has a new digital chapbook available for download from Sibling Rivalry Press: I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On. The chap opens with the following directive: “This is a work of fiction.” More specifically, it is a collection of prose poems, 14 in all, that trace a strange trajectory through a landscape of men—primarily in L.A., primarily encountered when the speaker is in her late teens and twenties. Queen’s poems offer a record that doesn’t indulge in glorification of this peculiar social and material context, but presents eerie parallels to the reality experienced by the rest of us, outside of L.A.
In the pdf format, Queen’s poems appear both as objects of interest within their justified blocks and as adjustable frames for each circumstance—the listed men who inspire the lengthiest reports are often those who have been the most invasive. The chapbook is a list only as much as Sei Shonagon’s zuihitsu are lists: a foundation that allows what is unsaid to be framed again with prominence. On each new reading, the poems continue to compile hints that the language stretched effortlessly across each story is, in fact, held taut in order to maintain the assertion that all is “fine”—not only the social brush-off of adequate happiness, but also the performance of young, female beauty. Appropriately, we also see the tremendous work and pleasure that goes into looking “fine”; she wears red lipstick throughout a several-year phase, a Kente cloth bomber jacket, holey Levi’s, white silk crop tops, pearls, a leather coat with fox fur collar. She also appears to be a woman, which is invitation enough for Dave Chappelle to catcall in a grocery and for Chris Rock to do a double take at her backside.
The first poem gives an indication of what’s to come: a sweet (if odd) encounter with Marcus Chong of The Matrix (bikes are ridden) quickly changes tone:
he asked me on a date I said yes he called with the plan I said I thought we were going somewhere but he wanted to make me dinner at his house I said a virginal No I don’t know you well enough to go to your house he got angry THE END
In each subsequent anecdote, we see man after man (or famous name after name) in moments of accidental encounter, in which many of them handle their privilege quite badly. For example, the speaker gets into a club courtesy of a friend’s cup size and fends off a boxer who pursues a friend so drunk “she didn’t know what the f she was doing.” In another poem, after accepting an invitation from a comedian playing second fiddle to Chris Tucker, she turns up to find “no party just him and a huge guy who seemed sheisty and my friend was like nope but I had to use the bathroom and we had driven all the way to the Valley in my Sentra.” In this instance, the outfit offers power: when he tries to make out with her in a hall, her platform shoes leave her a head taller and allow for an escape. Tucker later appears again, “looking at me like I was a plate of chicken” while she works a cash register and subsequently raping her.
After several episodes, Queen’s poems take on a sense of rolling consciousness as the speaker pulls together the details of who was where and what was said, bursts that explain not only the action but the scenario. She points to Eddie Murphy at a stoplight and runs into Sam Jackson on the day she is looking her worst, whispering his name to herself. In these moments, her lack of experience in the role of observer is evident. The more men we encounter, the more the trend shifts toward them as the distributors of power and violation; and yet, as the speaker breathlessly enters each segment, we come to know her a bit more—as someone who has learned the art of how to escape from men or enact some small resistance: “I clothes-lined Imani when he grabbed my ass in P.E.” As the speaker ages, we experience more of these moments of clarity about her own resilience:
EDWARD NORTON JUST STARED he was on his cell phone going up the escalator at Port Authority I was going down and when we met in the middle he said you are gorgeous I smiled he got off the escalator at the top level still on the phone I was 36 in a black turtleneck and salt-and-pepper curls and just starting to not be sad or afraid
In the final poem, Queen’s ultimate indictment becomes evident in the advances of the one unnamed man: the Famous Poet.
SO WHEN A FAMOUS POET DECIDES HE WANTS TO CALL ME I don’t really want to talk very long and I don’t believe his flattering emails I mean I had heard he was enamored but I also knew the long list of ex-girlfriends and I also had to iron my son’s clothes for school and help him with his homework so said I am not interested in being an ingénue
To have a speaker pivot from pearls to rape and then to ironing is a jarring motion that draws our attention cleverly to the demands placed on women to execute this kind of compartmentalization of trauma and abuse. Queen’s poems are at times funny, at times bizarre, but at all times conscious meditations on the bizarre juggling of priorities that is required to operate as a woman; the Famous Poet incident is particularly interesting to read at a time when issues of male power and sexual violence in the literary community have come to the forefront of discussions.
In I’m So Fine, Khadijah Queen takes a place that is glaringly lit and reveals within it the dynamics of living as a woman—a parallel universe, indeed, to the privilege enjoyed by the list of men. The chapbook returns to this sentiment in its conclusion, reminding us of the impossibility of writing about the ways women occupy their lives without the deep complication of gender:
And why couldn’t all this be only about name-dropping and brand names and puddintang ASK ME AGAIN I’LL TELL YOU THE SAME
Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming Colorado Review, Carolina Quarterly, Rhino, Better, and Verse Daily. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage and serves as a Count Coordinator for VIDA.