Reckoning & Reclamation: On Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne

By dawn lonsinger, PhD


In Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne, we encounter the irreducible inextricability of point-blank pain and layered love, language threaded on the filament of lines so perfectly that it sings and stings. The poems therein are a warning and a wish, a reckoning and reclamation, ode and erasure. It is a boldly constructed collection about the heartbreaks and body-breaks of life in late-stage capitalism, amid grind culture, war, the endless wake of white supremacy, patriarchy, malady, the everyday losses and consonant sadness, etc., but also about the sharp-yet-sating ache of desire, kinship, herbaria, family, art, and relationships. The gutting and gathering power of the poems often emerges from their ability to hold these many realities at once, showing us how contrasting spheres of being intersect our lives and bodies. Queen indicts our cultural and individual “avoiding / evidence of suffering at all costs” yet also keens for an expansiveness within which she could “stop the false / fight for my humanity, en masse, [is] allowed to share / a history of anything but suffering” (2, 14). Anodyne is full of what I’d like to call a Poetics of Exhaustion and a Poetics of Relationality, wherein the poet is tired of (and tired out by) the unrelenting violence and strains of this, our, world – “what severs / the head of connection in the time of least” – and its attendant losses. Nonetheless, she seeks out cracks in what is through which another way of imagining ourselves and our relationship to each other might emerge (25). It’s an aria of “ands” and caesura, tracing the intractable distances and intimacies of now. These are vibrant-yet-harrowing poems full of touch and terror, abduction and desire, beauty and domination, entrapment and escape.

We enter into a landscape replete with “common miracles” but also “endless / sentences about oppression,” and throughout, we learn how inextricable these are from each other, often contained in the same form or instance as in “chrysanthemums the rust of blood” (Queen 71, 76, 49). It is, in part, these entanglements of beauty and harm that is exhausting to navigate. These poems glow with a devotion to the particularity of lived experience, but this is amplified and unsettled by the elegiac – a brother lost to murder, a mother declining from dementia, the depression and suicidal ideation of a son “whose brilliance / isn’t understood yet,” who wonders “Why can’t I be myself in this world” (68, 3). In these poems, we encounter the human as the perimeter between what roils inside and what roils outside. One’s body is a kind of em dash, mote, hatchet, net, and, when lucky, a site of pleasure, reprieve, and connection. Queen explores the body as a site of contention for all the forces and dogmata of the world, and also as a source of irreverence and imagination, the “body ever in revolt, a red centimeter of a mouth / asking what else” (6).

We learn early in the book that the speaker is tired, but cannot sleep; as we move through the layers of experience and accreting chasms between self and outcome in subsequent poems, that tiredness grows colossal and endless, the speaker ever-calibrated to “what might exhaust this [her] brittle form” (68). Loss haunts and contemporary life threatens, and restlessness ensues and ensues. It’s literal restlessness and figurative restlessness – the restlessness of the unresolved, the revenant, the used, the misused, the used up, the vulnerable.  In a formally startling poem, “Synesthesia,” parentheses mirror the wounds of loss and make space for the ghost of the murdered brother to speak in a language we do not understand but can hear/see:

First, I was twenty-five with no sleep     (                     )

&         my body said   feel this                        And I didn’t

want to            (           )  then              It turned into a constant &      (     )

burned to be felt                      I couldn’t harden

away from it                 couldn’t ease                     (                  )

or sleep            or not-feel        my way away      because (                   )

It was myself & (Queen 30)

The self is riven with sorrow, not distinguishable from what injures it. The space between lines and the many caesuras within the lines, like the faults in logic or sense-making, serve to replicate how grief perforates and how navigating that loss in language might allow for a painful but paradoxically satisfying kind of coherence. Inherent in the wish to sleep, is the wish to reconcile with and transform one’s helplessness by dreaming of alternative endings, wherein the speaker “sang hush to a wounded man // (          ) // (          ) // gunshots, my brother                       (          )            and he lived” (31).

Likewise, in the later poem, “NJ Transit Passenger Ode,” the speaker confesses, “I want to sleep at night” perchance to dream “my family all lived // in the same place / long enough to grow daffodils & safe babies” (66). The final poem of the collection – an anaphoric litany of all the places and ways that the speaker has, in fact, slept – promises to offer some resolve or relief from the earlier disquiet, but the sleep, too, is punctuated by the harsh details of an exacting world – “a steel bunk in Illinois winter next to military / strangers,” “with a view of an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds & drug trash,” “in a bathtub dispossessed,” “with love & treated myself to unkindness,” [listening to] “nameless strays killing what they eat,” “with a man who hated himself,” wrapped “in a crochet blanket & / sorrow,” “in senescent lake muck,” “in my car on the side of Fountain Street at dawn,” “in a world I forgot to love sometimes,” “& more than once I didn’t close my eyes” (81-83). Queen is not interested in suggesting we have reached resolution or solace. There is, however, amid the long lines of troubled sleep, an instance of grace: “I slept inside a song with a Blacker voice than mine which meant I slept good” […] “I slept in a place of brilliant bones & the future of Blackness / I slept in a system outside of every law but one […] I slept in a simple way / I slept in a place just for us / I slept where I could see it” (82-83). Queen ends not on a simplistic note of hope, but on the edge of everything that currently is, where she can glimpse and presage an alternative world where Blackness has its own music and space.

* * *

In calling this book Anodyne, Queen is asking us to think about what might allay or soothe the many pains of contemporary life, which are often lessened or amplified according to the body you inhabit, the betrayals that come from the inside (as with chronic pain), and those that come from the outside (as with the supremacist ideologies and actions that compel Black Americans to “only ask     that you not kill us”) (25). Thanks to Queen’s deft experimentation with and handling of form and recurring motifs, we glimpse the ways these inside and outside betrayals have something to do with each other.

The word “anodyne” also brings to mind all the analgesic forms people use to render painful experiences less so by dulling their senses, as in Kendrick Lamar’s “twilight” used as epigraph; think nightshade, opium, camphor, Vicodin, saffron, wine, consumerism, etc. These poems honor that desire for the absence of pain, but also suggest that a heightening of ones senses, “a spirit of play” (as broadcast in the Anne Carson epigraph), attention, care, and deep engagement might offer a brighter balm, an antidote. So, this book woefully admits the need for constant painkillers and the longing for the anodyne to end anodynes (to be free from “made-up valor or resilience”), but also offers itself up as anodyne (1). To read these poems is to feel as if you have entered the many abysses of modern life and the ways histories of harm enter the body and home and mouth, but also as if you have been offered a amulet of protection in Queen’s conjuring attention and susurrant words, sung “sharp as blades” (2). We are given not just “repositories of beauty,” but the Ariadne-like string that might help to lead us out of the labyrinths of loss and cultural misappropriations, wherein we find that just beyond simple loveliness is the “untidy, untended, loveliness of the forsaken, / of dirt-studded & mold-streaked / treasures that no longer belong to anyone / alive, overrunning” (1). Despite having felt the pain of being made “smooth from pain,” one’s “interior [made] to hold the ruin,” the speaker of these poems is still on the lookout for “a good atonement” and “how to live exuberant with settle,” “stretch[ing her] insides / across pages until [her] pain is upside down” (Queen 51, 20, 17, 13).

* * *

Like the lemon added “to the cool / water in a faceted glass” from the poem, “Declination,” about desire and its acquittals, Queen’s writing is sharply, vividly, refreshingly investigative, arriving in versatile multifaceted forms with unconventional cadences. It pushes language to its limits in order to articulate the intimate specifics of daily defense against onslaught, and how one does this without losing one’s openness to intimacy (43). Queen clearly loves language – its heft and sound, texture and malleability – but also wants us to remember that language is limited and fails us all the time – “the violence of language in every space / I enter & think I am losing everything but my mind” (79). Thus, Queen goes to extreme measures to say the unsayable, using potent imagery, the page as a field of experimentation, surprising syntax, the invention of words, juxtaposition, etc. These poems go to the edges of language, emotion, experience, and artistic tactics, connecting unlike things to get closer to that third interstitial entity. Her poetic techniques multiply the meaning of words to go beyond the literal, giving readers an impression of an idea or feeling, an experience one can’t quite put into words but knows is real. There’s a figurative radiance here, sun-like in that it’s at moments life-giving and illuminating, and, at others, hard to look at, full of risk.

Narrative is one of the ways we catalogue or think of or experience our lives. But it is not the only way. Queen’s poems invite us to ask hard questions about how our experience of the world is mediated or transmitted. Do you experience your body as a part of a story? Do you understand “that molten underground we swim the surface of” (5)? Being so brave you almost die? A brother turned into dust? “How to use the word love, mean it” (20)? This is poetry that rearranges how you make contact with the world, is not a lesson or bit of wisdom, but something much more expansive and heterodox.

In this collection, compression and elision create an intensity that does not abbreviate; rather, it moves in the direction of complexity and multiplicity, toward not letting meaning or conclusion or dichotomizing clamp down, kill for the sake of understanding or satisfaction or a clean arc. In this way, it is foundationally deconstructive. While there are narrative threads in these poems, Queen’s poems are discernibly not tethered to narrative. Rather the lyrical provocations and pleasures of these poems are linguistic, imagistic, musical, philosophical, emotional, intellectual, formal, visceral, metaphysical, thematic, contrarian, figurative, and textural. They are sonically gorgeous and unrelenting, “boom[ing] with basalt,” and riveted with resonant insoluble questions like “Can I collect my fragments, / fragile now in the gentleness” (5, 37)? Her poems are plangent and you feel in the many forms – erasure, eclogue, grid, sestina, ode – and the tide-like lines an unruly roving attention, within which language is a depot for discovery and deliverance.

* * *

While the world keeps apprehending the speaker, across poems, through diminishing culturally constructed (but materially consequential) lenses – as woman, as Black, as professor, as ill, etc. – the personae poems in the collection try to disabuse us of this gisting error. Queen reminds us, rather, that she is only “disguised as an I (no direction),” is not a singular easily-diminishable category or self, but is of “disarray,” “flux,” made up of “opposites [that would like to be] allowed to oppose in peace” (9, 80). The personae poems reject essentializing or lessening how multiform and capacious the self, with its miraculous “starlit” and “drunk off sea liquor” origins … “our scatter / Expansion—openness, inexact song” (9, 26). They also call out all the ways that one – especially if relegated by a hierarchical culture to the margins – is abridged by and beholden to a “subaltern superstructure” and its “apparent psychological systems,” where whole populations are socially, politically, psychically, and geographically excluded and oppressed, strung out and along by “merchant discipline,” woefully “used up by the wrong power” (Queen 9-10). The personae poems remind us that we arrived differently than where and what we now find ourselves, not yet divisible and decided upon, but “via unpredictable route / via safer lacuna” to “shell the day-cold / bone-filled, language-less,” full of “varied intensity” (54). Thus the perpetual paradox and tension of living now, when “it feels strange to smile in a fascist era—grief / dammed up, ancient energy held back” (55). We are reminded we are made of greater wider various stuff, how we are drawn toward possibility, even as, when Queen writes in “Epilogue for Personae”:

who can feel the possible
in their bodies & not break
toward it—  (55)

The brilliance of the line break on “break” is that it suggests there is heartbreak and body ache when we come up against all that dilutes or delimits our possibility, but that if we get past that interruption we might “break toward” a further terrain of leeway and imagining.

There’s rage but it’s quiet; there’s hope, but it’s quiet. What’s not quiet is the intensity of interrogating a too common complicity, and the search for seams at the margin of harm that might be opened up into other worlds or possibilities. She calls the mercantile world and individuals out for what they have done to beauty, “trash[ing it], see[ing it] as glut, usable” (56). And in “Antediluvian,” there is a necessary inquisition of white people and their attendant gods:

Where were you when the truth disappeared or
when the truth battered us […]  Where
were you when strongmen told us to die &
blasted us into nothing.    Were you downtown
to witness the smooth mirage    stagnate in sky-
scraper shade & neon glower  (24)

* * *

But there are other everyday anodynes, which Queen underscores. Throughout the collection, nature, food, and animals are tranquilizing counterforces to cultural degradations. “Breezes peel blush and white petals from her magnolia, / lacing unruly roots in the spring grass,” seasons stretch out of shape amid “the opulence of acres,” the world continuing to make and unmake itself (23). And food is everywhere – “poblano soup & spicy / slaw on bootleg street tacos,” “fresh peaches / simmering in syrup,” “a tuna melt / cut in half,” “vegetarian gumbo,” “snapper & trout blackened on the spit” – climaxing with the grandmother’s cut potato, an old-world magic, used to cauterize injured skin: “Repeat / until it looks like nothing ever happened” (Queen 76, 78, 36, 65). Animals arrive as insight that is immune to rational understanding – “disappearing pattern— / Quarrel of sparrows // Branches beam[ing] full green” – with images that hit us at some subterranean and arterial level (71). But nature – with its ongoing aria of movement and transmutation – is also frequently formally elegiac, full of “falling star[s],” “erosion,” and “cracked bone [stitch]ing itself a whitened scar / over and over” (71, 5). But, for Queen, this natural kind of recursive dissolution or eventual death is what makes the body and mind electrically alive and present to its own inimitable being, like her own “animal glow—sacred rot” (20).

Anodyne mines the apocalypses that have long been underway, and all that might sate or save us amid them, like “resurrect[ing] the excised archive of […] relatives,” acknowledging that merely managing the aftershocks is not sustainable (20). Queen’s writing is so powerfully her own that it reminds us that we cannot replace a poem with our interpretations of it anymore than we can or should do that to others. She unseams the unseeming to figure out how to go on living. Her words make a circle around her coven. At their best, great poems give us new ways of saying, thus new ways of seeing, which ultimately suggest new ways of being. Audre Lorde wrote “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Queen’s Anodyne is one such bridge, a gift from the intersections of everything. We are reminded that “no matter / Sound makes space in the throat”; to peril language is to open oneself to sustenance (68). Therein, we are fortified by the consonance and precision of the inconclusive and multivalent:

Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies
Looped into every surface, looped
Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter  (Queen 28)

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm, and recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, the Utah Prize in Prose and Poetry, the Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Prize. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. lonsinger holds a BA in studio art and English as well as an MA in literature from Bucknell University, an MFA in poetry from Cornell University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. She recently finished a creative nonfiction book that tries to navigate the consanguinity and dissonance between erotics and robotics in a Tindering world, and is now working on a book of poems, The Long and Terrible Taming, which explores taming and wildness in all its manifestations. She is an Associate Professor at Muhlenberg College.

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