Guest Post by Chloe Yelena Miller.
DeMisty D. Bellinger’s Peculiar Heritage opens with the title poem. She invites us—at times challenges us—to look with that first line of the title poem, “if you look at her eyes.” The collective heritage of poems moves through slavery, different regions of the US, the African diaspora in Paris, as well as more contemporary violence in America.
The collection is divided into four parts, including a break in part three with protest poems. This almost aside of protest poems, as Part III continues again with a page break, draws attention to the fact that many, if not all of these poems, are already protest poems.
Bellinger works expertly with the craft as she uses form, punctuation, and voice. There are prose poems and formal poems with an abecedarian, ode, song, protest poems, pantoums, and more. These forms have been chosen to help illuminate voices, history, and human experiences. My favorite is “Call for Escape Abecedarian.” These couplets could work to summarize the full collection: “Killing is only murder when / Life is worthwhile” and “Resistance is an art practiced over a lifetime and / Strengthened in use, like any muscle.” Meanwhile, Bellinger works in lines that begin with the difficult letters U, X, Y, and Z so smoothly that the form serves the poem while hiding in plain sight.
The body, as both one’s most precious belonging and means for connection, as well as the object of study, hate, and harm, centers in many poems. In the poem “1925,” Bellinger writes about the racist history of studying and drawing the African American body. Her direct language, short lines, verbs in the infinitive, and broken parenthesis read as brutal commands. The fourth stanza, written as a prose poem, draws through words and the pencil tracing in the stanza. This woman, unknown, but an individual, emerges from the page with her history and hurt plain in her body. Bellinger writes, “Her feet grew more even though she was done growing. It was the babies.”
In Part I’s second section, Lunar Journey, the moon watches a third person “she” or “we” and a first person “I” escape slavery. In “New Moon,” it is cold. “My teeth chatter like / the spoons a man used for music” and “[ . . . ] I know it’s snow because it’s too thick to / be rain.” The physical experiences vividly animate the people in all of the poems. Nature, from the dirt and plants through the moon above, plays the role of not only setting, but also another character in the book.
Part II and IV move into a more contemporary world built on the past. In “Orlando,” a reference to the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the speaker opens announcing, “I want the biggest party” and after a poem with repeating words and beats like a dance song itself, ends, “I want the sun to always rise / I want to know there will be a tomorrow.” The sun, dancing, and protest, as well as reference to the massacre, is another step in this American heritage. Bellinger, a musician herself, weaves sounds in these poems, as well as the protest chants and songs, in many of the poems.
Peculiar Heritage, with quotations from Harriet Tubman, Karl Marx, Nancy Pelosi, Alice Walker, and others, as well as poems built around Hemingway quotations and another following epigraphs from Vanity 6 and Miss Jackson, pulls from so many directions in order to tell a cohesive story through many. These poems not only tell some stories of enslaved people and their escapes, but the reverberations their lives have through today.
Peculiar Heritage by DeMisty D. Bellinger. Mason Jar Press, August 2021.
Reviewer bio: Chloe Yelena Miller is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C.
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