YesYes Books ($18)
by Jeremiah Moriarty
Was it Dorothy Parker who once asked “Where's the man that could ease a heart like a satin gown?” I don’t know if Parker found something comparable in the toothy grin of Alan Parker, her on-again, off-again husband, but her question is a timeless, mostly unanswered one. Given the unreliability of other people and the mutability of desire, who do we dress for? A satin gown, the suggestions of the body beneath, can fetch the gaze of another, but it’s doing so much more work than that, both in the eyes of the beholder and the mind of the wearer. Who has the power in that situation, and how? Poet Khadijah Queen takes up these themes of fashion, attraction, and self-actualization in her new collection of episodic lyric pieces, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, exploring the universal contradiction of wanting to be beautiful while remaining skeptical of beauty’s place in the culture at large.
The cover of I’m So Fine characterizes the book as “A Narrative,” an expansive term that perfectly captures Queen’s detailed descriptions of famous men—their appeal and their approach—as well as her clothing. It gestures to the fact that clothes are very much indicators of the story we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Of meeting LL Cool J, she writes, “I had on black slacks & black Aerosole sandals & a cheap silky-polyester Rampage button-down with cap sleeves & a graphic blue sunflowers & carried my lipstick & wallet in a tiny pleather backpack I’m sure I looked a poor hot mess but oh well we got to see LL lick them lips.” These anecdotes, presented in clean-looking, elliptical passages, have little to no punctuation, and the restless stream-of-consciousness runs thick with pop culture reference and association. Most of them are Queen’s memories, but some are her mother’s, and many take place in Los Angeles, where celebrities coexist in funny, decidedly unglamorous ways with the rest of the populace. Paths cross, and the glamor of someone famous—as it often does—becomes immediately complicated by the male gaze, by differentials of power, and by morally suspect behavior.
Queen’s speaker rarely plays the groupie, more caught up in the excitement of a moment than anything else: when she and friends encounter Tupac in a Taco Bell drive-through, he invites them to a party “which seemed sketchy to me,” Queen writes, “but it was Tupac & it was Kelly’s car & she wanted to go so we went.” Sometimes the speaker’s motivations are not so simple, like the moment she leaves a club in Virginia with a friend “in time to see Allen Iverson in his cornrows & oversized jersey & jean shorts & clean Nikes get into the driver’s side of a white Bentley overcrowded with half-drunk half-dressed girls.” Though the speaker has no desire to be associated with “the so-called gold digger types,” encounters with larger-than-life figures still grab her eye and invite her curiosity; their fame, and the power inherent to that fame, can connect the non-celebrity to a larger cultural story.
Something of a thesis for I’m So Fine emerges in Queen’s passage on Bill Cosby and Beverly Johnson. Recounting Johnson’s decision to come forth about being drugged by Cosby and his attempted assault, Queen writes:
I immediately believed her & not him I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain by going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights and shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage
Hyper-visibility, in Queen’s experience, invites as many problems as benefits—the solicitations of “both spotlights and shadows.” I’m So Fine explores how the Black female body is made hyper-visible often not by choice or intention, but also how the individual in that body can gain agency by turning the gaze back on itself, how this visibility can be made into a powerful instrument of self-authorship. Its fresh humor and clear-eyed moral vision make it a perfect antidote to a time of oversimplified civil dialogue, of “fake news” and its opposite, and will hopefully invite others to interrogate their own relationship to space and visibility, to domination and erasure.