Two Books About Beauty: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine and Sarah Jean Grimm’s Soft Focus

Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm

“A very flat-chested woman is very hard to be a ten.” As we all know by now, the President of the United States said those words on the Howard Stern Show in the nineties. I still can’t get past that. I’m not sure if it’s because our president, like most middle school boys, believes in a rating system where women are appraised based on their physical traits, or if it’s because, as a flat-chested woman, I’m bummed I’m not a “ten.” I know that’s a sick thing to think, but of course being feminist doesn’t mean one is entirely free from the intense ideological beauty standards of our society. I think this is what it’s like to be an intelligent, feminist woman today: you can recognize the bullshit, you can feel angry, and you can also want to be recognized within that admittedly-bullshit system as a desirable object. I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen and Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm are two brilliant new poetry books that simultaneously celebrate and eviscerate the complicated landscape of American womanhood. While both books explore the traditional trappings of femininity—makeup, clothing, hairstyles—along with our newer gendered societal norms—selfies, Instagram, clickbait, celebrity culture—on a deeper level, Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm each peel back the layers of multiple selves, masks, and metaphorical armor most women wear every day in order to simply survive.

Khadijah Queen I'm So Fine

Khadijah Queen’s fifth book, I’m So Fine, published by YesYes Books, is a collection of prose poems in which the narrator reminisces on experiences, from age twelve to forty-four, of meeting famous and non-famous men (borrowing, too, some of the experiences of her mom and dad). She approaches most of these men with a good deal of skepticism and nonchalance, refusing to “fan-girl” and instead viewing her role as an objectified woman with intellectual distance. Men are equally the deliverers of sought-after attention and constant threats to a woman’s safety. As the speaker ages into a single mom in her forties, men are seen even more as a potential threat to her happiness (“I like my body unassailed by tenderness or roughness & free of obligation & I like my peace” (54)). Most of the book’s encounters happen in LA, but Atlanta, NYC, and Denver also make appearances.

With each encounter, the narrator carefully details her outfit and reflects on how clothes create a momentary, often superficial, sense of power. In “I went to a fancy steakhouse & my class was showing,” Queen writes: “I mean y’all it was a lot of T&A & it shocked me a little […] & I thought wow is this what I looked like when I was in my 20s ridiculous & stuffed into discomfort & I can’t believe I believed in it” (62). In writing about fashion, hairstyles, and makeup, Queen points out how these traditional modes of femininity are really a performance, a place to explore identity, sexuality, and power structures. Also noteworthy are the texts, all by writers of color, which the narrator seems to always be reading (and which counter celebrity culture; in an ideal society, wouldn’t these authors be the real celebrities?)—books like Sula, Woman Warrior, The Salt Eaters, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s hard not to love a female narrator whose intelligence, beauty, sensuality, and feminism are equally, boldly on display.

The voice in these poems pops off the page, full of warmth, familiarity, confidence, and honesty. The lack of punctuation creates urgency; the poems have a stream-of-consciousness, conversational vibe. Vivid descriptions of clothing, through various eras, add a lush, sensory quality, but also feel empowering—like, fuck yeah, these are outfits are good: “[my sister] had on my clothes that day a jewel-toned striped blazer & everything else black velvet choker bodysuit stirrups & suede platform sandals plus her own burgundy wool beret” (12). On the other hand, Queen writes, of seeing Beverly Johnson, prior to her going “public about Cosby drugging & trying to assault her”:

“I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain from going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights & shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage & I don’t mean looks all the time I mean all women are all beautiful & I wish we knew it in ways that make us realize the relative insignificance of the arrangement of external features so we might as well not get so caught up in that ish” (26)

I was familiar with I’m So Fine as a digital chapbook from Sibling Rivalry Press, released in 2013. This full-length version swells the narrative with more encounters, more reflections, and the addition of a postscript, “Any Other Name.” I could read these poems endlessly, repeatedly. They are at various turns funny, heartwarming, tender, upsetting, scary, and emboldening, tackling all facets of gender, sexuality, sexual assault, race, religion, and class in contemporary America. For example, in the poem “One day Tiff was sad because it was the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death & she just really wanted to go see Michael Jackson,” Queen writes:

“one guy gave us a $5 bill because he said he had daughters & it wasn’t safe for us to ask strangers for money he also offered us a ride but we said no thank you because he could’ve been a perv & this was years before some kids accused MJ of making them drink Jesus juice & even then to believe white people over MJ seemed like betrayal like here they go trying to take everything from us again our geniuses our heroes our talents our loves & if it’s true it hurts it hurts it hurts” (11)

Queen also explores the threats women face when simply trying to enjoy their lives, working their jobs, minding their own business. In the poem “I never met Snoop Dogg but I met his homie Lil’ ½ Dead,” on the set of a music video:

“½ Dead himself flashed cash stacks at me & got mad when I refused his proposal to kick it later all of a sudden I was a stuck-up bitch & then it was time to start the shoot we got called to set & the smoke machine was going on the faux dance floor & midway through the unremarkable song one of the goons tried to pull my sister’s dress down in the front his finger actually touching her chest the AD had no control & ½ Dead who looked half-dead I mean it was like his whole aura was dirty he got on his bitch tirade again […] & we couldn’t get out of there fast enough we started hearing threats” (24)

On the very next page, the speaker recalls a nineteen-year-old coworker: “I won’t say if my coworker got hurt but she made a fact out of fear & I remember makeup over bruises the 1990s dangerous for women like any other decade like now” (25).

Queen’s narrator dresses her body, engages with men, receives attention, shares experiences with female friends, explores her sexual power, feels objectified, feels bad, feels hurt, and yet, through it all, expresses an undying reservoir of confidence and self respect:

“your armor is a burgundy vegan leather tank top with peplum hem & a black midi skirt & low-heel slightly-over-the-knee leather boots & you can feel the men in the restaurant looking as you walk by but they don’t speak & you practice what you’ve learned you walk tall walk pageant straight & manage to eat greens & cornbread with whatever kind of grown woman grace” (55)

I’d give this book to the young women in my life. I’d get this book in middle and high school libraries. Like the title suggests, we women are fine, as in gorgeous, as in valuable, as in fuck you to anyone who says otherwise. The final poem in the collection, “Any Other Name,” a reflection on being single at forty-four, reiterates this idea of self-worth:

“A man can break you with your own love if you don’t remember who you are among nonbelievers. All praises due to the part of me that listens to herself first” (68).

Sarah Jean Grimm Soft Focus

Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm is similar to Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine in that she explores both the painful and the positive aspects of femininity. The winner of The 2016 Metatron Prize and her debut poetry collection, Grimm’s poems are sparse, lineated, and airy, with a dry, sarcastic humor:

“You are what you eat

So from now on I am surviving on spunk

I want to possess whatever allows you to be bold

Without getting called feisty


My gut reaction when I am in the world

Is to apologize


No one’s ever said sorry to me

For making my eyelashes stick together

With their egg on my face” (20)

Soft Focus explores the realm of eating disorders (“our bodies / Demanding their very smallness / Becomes the elephant in the room” (17)), romantic love, sexuality (“The formula went Sex = Death / Solve for virgin, solve for whore” (36)), makeup, and the distinctly female desire to please. The first line of the book sets the tone: “Be a doll now, you say, and I am become one” (3).

Grimm’s poems drip with viscous sensuality: milk, eggs, honey, meat, chicken, whiskey, lamb. Yet, for all the visceral details, there is an overwhelming emphasis on restriction:

“Is it religious

The way I restrict myself

With my nails clipped

With my ankles crossed

Is it religious is there incense

Leaking out of this poem” (31)

Lines like these make Grimm a modern-day Plath, using knife-sharp language to offer a scathing critique of society’s pressures on women to remain small and silent. But imagine if Plath was our contemporary, and had the nerve to write metaphors more stunning, more gut-wrenching, with veiled references to porn and pain:

“To get love I listen

To give love I regurgitate


Vomit implies a lack of control

But I’m talking discipline

I’m talking two fingers

Real romantic puke that says

I understand […]


To be trained on approval

Is to be a girl at the turn of the century

I’m talking every century” (11).

In “Cool Blue Middles,” Grimm even brings in a hilarious Plath reference:

“The mechanical advice in my afternoon clickbait:

Practice on a Light Switch to Improve Cunnilingus

Which recalls for me that Plath line:

Darling, all night I have been flickering off, on, off, on

I don’t know if she was imagining

What I’m imagining now” (34)

Plath certainly wasn’t, but I’m glad Grimm is here to do the necessary reimagining. Grimm’s project in this book is in conversation with Queen’s, in that they both explore the various ways beauty and femininity shackle women, and the armor women wear in order to survive. In the title poem, “Soft Focus,” Grimm writes:

“I find myself sometimes existing in sections

I can’t seem to pick a face and stick with it

Did you know that if you make yourself

smile when you are sad,

you will actually become happier?

If I make myself smile

when I am told to smile,

is that the patriarchy making me happier?” (40)

Like I’m So Fine, Soft Focus ends on an optimistic note. While Queen’s narrator turns inward, toward self-reliance, Grimm’s narrator offers romantic love and sensuality as a potential place where a woman’s body, and armor, might dissolve, revealing a momentary escape from the pain of being human. In Grimm’s penultimate poem, a love poem titled “Crystal Palace,” she suggests that love may have the power to “vanish my body / into a temporary grace”:

“I furnish myself with myths

like the idea of my mobility

making me a good American


or the capacity of ritual

to vanish my body

into a temporary grace […]


let’s pretend you’re falling

for me and let’s pretend

I’m not going to let you […]


in truth when I’m with you I feel

like I’ve never let anyone down […]


I carry my sigil


into the crystal palace

where I can focus

on internal order and how


when I am close to you

I am closer to everything” (50)

And in her final poem, “Afterglow,” full of bodies, lamb, chickens, sandwiches, and apocalyptic laboratory research, the speaker:

“[…] will hold a great auction

Raffle off all-inclusives so nobody’s left behind

Post-body, we are all

Glowing phosphates

There is no more mouthing will you love us

will you love us for how long

No more using our mouths to enthrall” (55-56)

To me, this reads like the “us” is women, using our mouths to “enthrall”: to be silent, to perform, to restrict, to devour, to refuse to devour. Women, so much more than men, are under strict societal rules regarding what we do or don’t do with our bodies (“I’ve been reciting my lines / I’ve been minding the rules / […] One week into my new job / On the phone I was told I sounded twelve / Esophageal uptalk I struggle to suppress” (44)). Yet Grimm’s speaker knows too well the distinct dread of being excluded from the meat market of patriarchy, of not being considered a beautiful object in a society that values women mostly for their sex appeal. Circling back around to the earlier poems’ focus on restriction (“the worst would be if you didn’t notice my hunger” (3)), bodies, and beauty (“With the right filter I am half pretty” (3)), Grimm elucidates how we live in a society that traps women in the confusing double bind of beauty and desirability, or, to put it in metaphorical, horror-film terms:

“The call is coming from inside the house

Still, dread of being locked outdoors” (45)

Fittingly, Grimm’s cover is of lowered blinds. If the call to unrealistic, damaging beauty standards is coming from within the house, one could always leave. Grimm’s speaker(s) certainly leave the house to work, to engage, to shop (“Cheap lace and black organza / I remember my training / Some consumer” (43)); they don’t, perhaps “leave” the “house” of the wounded feminine psyche: “I liked to give the people / what they wanted // Approval powdered me / a milky Victorian” (35). Queen’s cover is a woman’s face staring straight out from behind what appears to be streaks of red lipstick.

Both Queen’s and Grimm’s book covers suggest the ways women hide—whether for safety or for strength (is makeup a mask, or war paint?). Both Grimm and Queen demonstrate how American women—as long as our self-worth continues to be defined by the influences of media, celebrity culture, Internet culture, and modern beauty standards, and as long as we perpetuate this among ourselves—are still trapped in a sort of bell jar. Luckily, with books like these, we might see a way out, especially with their reversal of the white supremacist, heteronormative male gaze, or, as Grimm writes, with characteristic dark wit:

“The female gaze is all about me

Looking at you

Looking at me

Which is to say

It’s like the male gaze but more aware of what it’s doing” (9)

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