Leon Craig

Seen by your fingertips

Berfrois: The Book, edited by Russell Bennetts, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals, 2019, 402 pp, £11.44 (paperback)

Queen Mob’s Tea House: Teh Book, edited by Russell Bennetts, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals, 2019, 360 pp, £4.97 (paperback)

Anyone who thinks fiction and poetry are dying art forms needs to stay at home and get online more. As Russell Bennetts wrote in The Digital Critic ‘the revolution might not be televised, but will almost certainly be seen by your fingertips.’ Bennetts’s two literary websites, Berfrois.com and Queenmobs.com (the latter run jointly with Rauan Klassnik) provide a home to the experimental, the radical and the just plain weird art that thrives online, without which literary culture would be considerably poorer. 

Named after the grandstand or gallery a storey above the lists at a tournament (historically reserved for ladies and other noble spectators during jousts in the Middle Ages), the ten-year-old Berfrois.com publishes left-wing writing alongside fiction, poetry and essays. Unlike its namesake, the website does not cultivate an approach of unworldly remove, and this political tendency is apparent throughout the anthology, often manifesting itself in interesting and unexpected ways. Many of the pieces are concerned with stretching the reader’s imaginative empathy – Juliet Jacques tries to narrate a queer life for her unmarried great aunt Elsie in the early twentieth century, despite the paucity of historical records and access to only one photo of the deceased. Other writers attempt to encompass non-human experiences, for example, Justin Erik Halldor Smith’s ‘The G.O.E’ (short for Great Oxygenation Event) is narrated by an anaerobically-respiring microbe, concerned that cyanobacteria are soon to take over the world and render it uninhabitable to their kind. The microbe’s tone is unsettlingly conspiratorial and its complaint a darkly funny reminder of the ever-changing state of the natural world, from its earliest evolutionary origins to our presently-unfolding ecological disaster.

It has become harder to discuss nature without discussing climate change, which is another recurrent feature of much of the work in Berfrois. Teresa K Miller and Gregory Giles’ essay ‘Zombie Viruses and Parasite Eggs’ discusses the climate change horror film ‘The Last Winter’ as an expiation of collective guilt. Our human habit of fearing the wilderness and imagining it exacting deliberate revenge on us is posited as inextricable from the self-obsession that has led us to pollute it. ‘When we deplore the destruction of nature, we’re only disingenuously lamenting our own destruction and the collateral damage of co-existing species’ – nature will continue with or without us in some radically altered form.

Another potent personal and political theme is hybridity. Elias Tezapidis reflects on acquiring a hybrid identity through dislocation after moving back to Salonica following a decade in the US: ‘I speak to the mail person in perfect Greek, my native language, yet she persists I am foreign.’ Correspondingly, in the US he does not sound Greek enough, thanks to an adolescence spent watching American TV. In an Economics class in grad school, he is asked to play the part of representing his country and explaining its economic crisis, even though he has never lived there as an adult or filed taxes. Pronouncing the names of Greek philosophers with a Greek accent becomes ‘mispronouncing’ when speaking about them in English. ‘There seems to be a limited space in identities in transition, experiences being digested, things being a liminal stage where resolution is pending’ – although many people’s experiences of identity illuminate the need for liminal space.

In their poem ‘Proprioceptive Attunement’, j/j hastain stretches the boundaries of language itself to transcend the gender binary while writing about an ecstatic sexual encounter ‘Under the full moon’s rays – my bare chest (tonight it is a chest). Wear no shirt because this is a shrine’. The speaker enters a mystic union with their lover that is also a powerful metaphor for fluid identity: ‘Is oneness gendered for you – my love?/ No, it is the closest to the divine we can be and still be on earth’. In a less tender mode, Legacy Russell’s scathing poem ‘AAVEnues’ is a virtuosic demonstration of the inventiveness of Black English online, frenetically switching registers between playful humour and urgently political commentary ‘when you meme these memorable instants are your gifs playing homage to the faith we kept while in middle passage which tbh probs inspired the invention of remix itself?/ *** I have questions tho***’. Neither straightforward polemic nor disaffected drollery, Russell’s poem comes closest to encapsulating the creative possibilities of online writing celebrated by the anthology.

Queen Mob’s Tea House describes itself as hosting ‘weird, serious, gorgeous, cross-genre, spell conjuring, rant inducing work’. Unlike Berfrois, this anthology was assembled by a team of editors and while this approach successfully recreates the zaniness and irreverence of the website, the book does suffer for it. Two less successful pieces both satirise established rightwingers’ attempts to excuse Donald Trump’s erratic behaviour. Rio Amilcar Scott imagines defences offered up by Conservative pundits after the 45th president is seen defecating on the White House lawn, justifying it as ‘job creation’ and ‘basic lawn care’ done with the intention of fertilising the grass. Trinie Dalton has Trump insisting that spaghetti-consumption is integral to the process of creating human life, while scientists try to explain his mistake without using the newly banned word ‘foetus’. The two pieces’ satiric bite is diminished by their proximity to one another – and by the plausibility of almost any excesses from the Trump administration.

At its best, the selected writing is hauntingly strange. In  Robyn Maree Pickens’s ‘The skeleton of a dog who is still alive’ an unnamed woman is employed to present extinct species and mysterious artefacts to a room of wealthy spectators, donning a specially-selected pair of gloves for each occasion and desperately trying to commit each lost, precious thing to memory so she can recount their stories to her lover. Many of the artefacts are recognisable from our own present or recent past, but the cataclysm that must have erased all knowledge of them is never described, only the peculiar details of her showmanship.

In Setsuko Adachi’s ‘Border’, an elderly couple become obsessed with maintaining the shrine of a horse-head bodhisattva in a distant field, dismantling their family tomb and leaving an excessively polite posthumous note apologising for the inconvenience of their deaths and insisting that their ashes be scattered near the horse heads instead. Colin Raff’s ‘Secrets of the Wee Folk’ imagines a world in which fairies have more advanced technology than humans and use it only for mischief: ‘One night she caught [the changeling] bathing itself in the fireplace, its skin glowing like hot iron. Upon discovery, the sham child darted through the nearest window via what could only be called a Lunarform Minibooster Celestial Assault Launch’. The incongruity of the sci-fi elements in a 1903 setting somehow only make the fairies more sinister, even as they become ridiculous. The image of a changeling jousting with a captured mortal baby is particularly gruesome and unsettling. 

Some of the most surprising work in the anthology is the result of experiments with computer programming and found text. Eileen R Tabios’s discomfort with the inspiration provided to her by Semezdin Mehmedinovic’s Sarajevo Blues, when she did not personally live through the Bosnia-Hercegovina war, led to a project in which she wrote 1,167 single lines inspired by various poetry collections and fed them through an online generator to create a series of tankas. The result is ‘poems applicable to virtually any late-20th century, early 21st century war’ – an uncomfortable method of highlighting the constant and predictable bellicosity of mankind: ‘Nothing in me/ Watched dogs eat a corpse/ I felt the wild desire to/ Laugh when you called this place Hell// I forgot the light burned and we never shaded our eyes’.

Christina M Rau’s ‘Survey’ is a poem in the form of a consumer survey that purports to be testing whether or not the reader is human. The questions grow more and more repetitively machine-like and absurd as they continue, and yet managing to be increasingly accusatory in their absurdity ‘61. Have you had Lasik surgery in the past 6 months?/ 61.a Do your eyes forgive you?/ 61. b. Are you happy with yourself?’. The poem cleverly recreates the pareidolia that accompanies our interactions with bots, while still provoking existential dissatisfaction with its questions however poorly-designed they turn out to be: ’48. DO YOU OWN a kayak?// 49. Are you planning to travel to Luxembourg in the next six months?’.

Raquel Salas Rivera’s ‘puerto rico is open for business’ has more to say about humans than machines, bringing home the venality of America’s response to the ongoing crisis on the island with a bricolage of phrases from the businessinpuertorico.com website. By using line breaks to defamiliarise every word until even ‘beautiful’ and ‘vibrancy’ become suspect terms in this context, Salas Rivera imposes on the reader the inadequacy of platitudes in the face of the disaster.

Both books are brimming with original and thought-provoking work, and most readers should find something to enjoy in the diverse selection of poetry, prose and occasional illustrations. Summing up the character of something as mutable as website is no mean feat, but Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Tea House succeed in retaining the liveliness and off-beat charm that continues to draw readers online. 

Words by Leon Craig.

Queen Mob’s Tea House: Teh Book 
is available to buy here and Berfrois: The Book here
Visit Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Tea House online.

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