Book Review: Peculiar Heritage
Reviewed by Samantha Hui
Poignant. Complex. Extraordinarily beautiful.
These poems will have you contemplating America’s long history of racism and negotiating revolution in spite of seeming futility.
Demisty D. Bellinger’s Peculiar Heritage walks the line between prose and poetry, between story and inherent truth. The poems highlight historical figures and events such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Orlando nightclub shooting, and they pay homage to writers such as Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. While maintaining its vulnerability, the book does not shy away from complicated topics.
Peculiar Heritage traverses centuries, beginning in 1692 with the first woman accused of witchcraft–an enslaved woman named Tituba–and ending in the throes of America’s current struggles with racism and brutality.
This poetry collection is lyrically heavy, experimenting with free forms as well as traditional forms such as the pantoum and the abecedarian masterfully. Each stand-alone poem packs a punch and carefully lays out experiences of American Black women, enslaved, recently freed, or those on the receiving end of our country’s current discrimination and violence.
While each poem is poignant and impactful on their own, the book as a whole feels as if it were one complete story, as if the multitude of women who are the subjects of each piece were a single woman, unified by a similar struggle against a country that won’t have them, time traveling through America’s complicated and violent history.
“I tell them because I want to be free, if they want me
No more with the family, no more in Salem, no more coldness,
I’ll tell them a story.”
The book often grapples with the complexity of revolution and freedom. The subjects of the poems acknowledge the power that comes with storytelling and poetic forms; in the poem “Tituba” words have power and can be utilized as a revitalizing weapon. But on the other side, in poems like “(Protest Poems)” and “(Ontology Of),” storytelling can feel futile when crafted at a desk, when it feels as if progress is nowhere in sight: “I write letters I won’t send save for publishers / of little magazines and I’ll sit, sending out.”
In the same vein as the two sides of revolt, the book often feels as if it is folding in upon itself with the way repetition is utilized–not only from stanza to stanza but from poem to poem as well. The motif of eyes comes up in poems such as the titular poem “A Peculiar Heritage” and “1925.” The eyes can be a thing that looks back, reminding the observer that there is humanity behind them. Or the eyes can be turned into an object, just another body part to notate. The book is powerful in its ability to show the duality of the body as the thing that can be possessed and as something that can reclaim.
“Here: take your hand from your heart
and kneel as in prayer, read with me
about dried-out raisins and
Peculiar Heritage is personal, historical, and political insofar as the Black woman’s body has been politicized. A necessary read for those coming from any background, the book will have readers striving for change in spite of seeming futility.
Publisher: Mason Jar Press
Genre: Poetry / African & African American Literature
Print Length: 100 pages
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