Is home the same thing here?
I shoo the bug away
thinking how easily I place that word
on other places. Try to remember
where you come from. Try to know
where you’re going.
from “Insects of France”
What I notice immediately about Peculiar Heritage (Mason Jar Press,
2021) is that it is a book that knows where it comes from. It is a book
which finds a home within lineage and remains acutely aware of, and
undaunted by, the inherited, inter-generational trauma that lineage
inevitably entails. In her debut full-length collection, DeMisty D.
Bellinger traverses space and time in order to investigate those things
closest to us: home, loss, hate, freedom, what it means to tell a good
story, and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to listen. She moves
through history effortlessly, placing her readers within the lives of
such influential women as Tituba, Harriet Tubman, and Josephine Baker,
in musical—and oftentimes visceral—ways. She illustrates the way
history repeats itself in her contemporary protest poems. She appears in
Paris, in Orlando, on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River, on the
sand dunes of Lake Michigan, looking for bone-deep signs of belonging
and of memory. And she invites us to keep our eyes open, to resist
injustice, to look along with her.
Peculiar Heritage is image-heavy, refusing to turn away from the
violent truths of marginalization. In “A Peculiar Heritage,” the titular
poem and the opening poem of the collection, readers will find the
collection in miniature: swift and piercing and asking all the right
questions. In this scathing glimpse into the historical abuse of
enslaved Black women, the reader is placed into the shoes of a white
slave master. He rapes the unnamed woman and compares her to livestock,
lamenting: “remember that / heifers and sows and ewes too, would give
such eyes but soon / resolve, like the Negress / to forget.” After a
moment of denial, an avoidance of the heinous act he is committing, this
comparison sparks an increasingly existential line of self-questioning
in the man which culminates in the line: “what is it / that comes from
you?” As difficult as this poem is to read, it is expertly crafted:
Bellinger’s slant rhymes and short lines lend a thrumming, spoken-word
quality to the poem, catapulting the reader immediately into a sense of
urgency. It is also an important poem, one that opens this collection
with an unwavering stare, a demand to keep reading.
“A Peculiar Heritage” heads off a section of the book comprised of odes
to influential women of history. These are poems which yearn toward
tenderness, despite the brutality inherent in the systems these women
“a freedom as wide as this should / be shared with her and her family.”
—from "There Was Such a Glory: An Ode to Harriet Tubman"
These poems know that to stay together is to stay alive, and that those
that are gone stay with us. Part One concludes with “Lunar Journey,” a
sub-section of breathtaking poems analyzing whiteness, slave labor, and
the path to freedom. This section culminates in “June 19, 1865,”—which
savvy readers will recognize as the first Juneteenth—a deftly concise
fragmented poem full of hope and uncertainty.
Resistance is the driving force behind the next two sections of the
book. In these poems, Bellinger explores the symptoms of a uniquely
American breed of indoctrination and demonstrates the practices that
lead to a unified resistance against their causes. For instance: she
discusses the implications of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance
in “Morning Pledge.” In the prose poem “Big Men and the North,” she
bemoans the stony grip that capitalism has on the population and mourns
those who are sacrificed to keep the machine running. But all is never
lost. As skillfully as she navigates space, time, and poetic structure,
Bellinger also navigates tone. The tone of the collection begins to
shift in the poem “A Collective Resistance.” It draws on themes of
togetherness found in the earlier poems, focusing on the revolutionary
potential of a people—the mass desire to act for “the greater good”
though they themselves are being crushed. This spark of protest explodes
in the aptly titled “Protest Poems,” a series of poems concerned with
two important ideas: 1) using to channel energy towards education and
reform, and 2) asking those questions which dare not be asked:
What would we be
had Christ pulled himself
from the cross & knocked
that hateful structure down?
Would he be Christ?
Would we stand for persecution?
from II. “(Peaceful)”
The final section of A Peculiar Heritage is a quieter, more optimistic
view of a life lived in the face of inherited trauma. It is a slim
section thick with the wisdom of years, and the rhythm of the poems
reflects this in unique ways: the repetition of “water” in the poem “A
Childhood;” the long, chatty lines of “Wisdom of the Aesthetician;” the
branching sentences of “Management of Lunatics, with Illustrations of
Insanity.” In the final poem of the collection, “Age of Affirmation,”
Bellinger invites us to continue to explore our lives, histories, and
ambitions, reminding us that “thinking is grander now more than ever.”
Peculiar Heritage is a book necessitated by the shock of a
particularly American culture of violence, and Bellinger responds to the
call in a way that is multi-faceted, heartbreaking, and enticing. In
short: Peculiar Heritage is a triumph. It is both love letter and
fight song; it is an homage to those who came before us and a rallying
cry for those taking up the fight.