Bruno Cooke reviews The Book of Bad Betties (Bad Betty, 2021) edited by Vanessa Kisuule and Anja Konig
In their introduction, editors Vanessa Kisuule and Anja Konig, both excellent poets in their own right, define what they mean by, and what we as readers might interpret as, a ‘Bad Betty’. In doing so, they avoid (some of) the potential awkwardness that arises when members of a social movement taxonomise others, or each other — access denied to all but the Baddest of Betties. Their candid approach to the inconstancy of Bettydom, for want of a better word, raises some interesting points about society in general: the evolution of Betty, warts and all, offers a glimpse into contemporary feminism.
Five years ago, Kisuule says, during ‘peak times’ for neoliberal feminism, Bad Betties were ‘glossy and shiny’, ‘boss bitches’ clad in ‘thigh-high boots’ and kicking down at glass ceilings. The Bad Betties of yore exuded power and were strong ‘in the performative way’. They took up space, didn’t take no for an answer, possibly wore leather and, I don’t know, smoked cigarettes out of cigarette holders. And, as a pseudo-feminist trope, they weren’t all that consistent with progressive, intersectional (read: actual) feminism. Actually, tropes like these can confine rather than liberate women — so the editors argue.
Their candid approach to the inconstancy of Bettydom, for want of a better word, raises some interesting points about society in general: the evolution of Betty, warts and all, offers a glimpse into contemporary feminism
The Book of Bad Betties is an attempt to reconstruct Betty. Now, for Konig and Kisuule, ‘Bad Betty-ness’ has to do with subversion, inner conflict and witchiness; insouciance, cheek and a recognition of vulnerability. Bad Betties are underdogs, mothers and occasional fighters. A Bad Betty survives by doing what she can. Some don’t: ‘not all heroes wear capes’, runs the adage, just off the page. ‘The pedestal is a different kind of cage,’ says Konig. Her and Kisuule’s definition of a Bad Betty, of which they’ve sought examples for this book, recognises nuance and complexity, as well as struggle and paradox. And, to their and their chosen poets’ credit, so do some of the poems in the collection.
“We know that women have been put into these two categories: the Madonna or the whore. You could be the saint on the pedestal, or you could be the outcast, but [either way] you are not seen as a full spectrum human.”
Part one of four, titled ‘The Hexenhaus Inside You’ — in my opinion, the strongest part — encapsulates some of the subversive spirit Kisuule and Konig speak about in their introduction. In Ellora Sutton’s submission, ‘In a Dream Leonora Carrington Gives Me a Makeover’, the visitor ‘does my eyes with a scalpel’. It is a dream-like fairytale in negative. Her hair resembles ‘thick snakes of smoke’; there is no mirror. ‘I think she’s got my mouth wrong’, the protagonist protests. ‘Oh do girls not have fangs?’ replies Carrington, for whom the ball is something ‘awful’. Cinderella flipped on her head, the poet is transformed into something Other, something grotesque yet ‘delicious’: ‘My true face, my gorgeous snout, my mongrel spots’; ‘My six swollen teats tumble from the taffeta’. It is all ‘laughter and flesh’. Carrington soothes. ‘There, […] my sweet hyena, isn’t that better?’ The transformation is beastly, mammalian, complete.
You are a debutante, she tells me.
Her hair floats behind her in thick snakes of smoke.
They are throwing a ball in your honour
and it will be awful. Something has to be done.
For those who don’t know — I didn’t — Hexen are witches, or hags. Hexe’s roots go back, via the Proto-Germanic word hagaz (‘skilled, crafty’) to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to be able, capable’. But, come the 17th century, the able ones were kept in prisons for the maleficent, of which the Drudenhaus, built in 1627 on the order of Johann ‘witch burner’ Georg Fuchs von Dornheim, was one of the more (in)famous examples. Welcome to Bamberg. In The Book of Bad Betties, the reference fares well, and is congruent with the poems to which it is attached.
The embrace of taboo — here manifest in snakes and snouts, ‘mongrel spots’, ‘swollen teats […] leaking’ and the feeling of a ‘real horse between my legs’ — unfolds differently, and with quiet hilarity, in Helen Bowell’s ‘extract from “witchknot”’. Here, the protagonist is Arthur Pendragon’s irreverent other half, who ‘cannot be arsed with hosting’. Having to associate with the likes of Lancelot and Percival all the time is tiresome: ‘so much mead so many dead / things in the kitchen / I could have my pick / but I just can’t be bothered’. Meanwhile:
Morgan is a fruit
lover which is to say
when she eats
you want to watch
Bowell strips Arthurian legend of its grandeur, rendering it instead in curious, banal, laughable detail. Like Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, she paints heroic characters in unusual colours. But, while Stoppard’s characters are removed from their originals, they are still removed from the world. Bowell’s are entirely ordinary, even pathetic. A ‘kerfuffle’ signals a ‘post-breakfast duel’, on which Bowell’s persona muses, ‘I think better to go at it before food / so if your entrails get spilled / it’s less embarrassing / but whatever’. The maids snore; Arthur is ‘log-like’. Merlin paces, ‘kicking some ferns’ — he ‘doesn’t respond well / to help or compassion’. Fallible Merlin.
Many of the poems in The Book of Bad Betties swing hard and hit their mark
Legend as soap or sitcom is territory more regularly explored by television writers. Plebs and Norsemen spring to mind. But giving a pen to Guinevere herself somehow feels more subversive.
obviously I don’t make this public knowledge
but I have fucked other people
than Arthur Pendragon
and I know a thing or two
(from ‘extract from “witchknot”’ by Helen Bowell)
Many of the poems in The Book of Bad Betties swing hard and hit their mark. ‘The Legend of the Jars: Part 2’ by Marguerite Harrold, in which the persona’s mother keeps a mysterious finger in a jar — the severed digit is an heirloom, the ring it once bore pawned — is one. Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa’s ‘Flying Fish’, wherein the deeds of saintly figures are juxtaposed with the humble heroism of childbirth, is another. Moments of narrative sweetness grace Erdem Avsar’s ‘this till is now closed’; comedy and reverence intermingle in Jasmine Gray’s ‘Interview (I)’.
i never finished soaking muh peas
i might just pretend to sleep so i don’t have to
today a cock is being erected in St Michael a thank you
fuh saving lives his i begat one aunty begat three
so where de ass is we statue?
– from ‘Flying Fish’ by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
But all of the above are in the collection’s first half. After that, for me, it lost steam. Sometimes, good ideas are executed without panache, or self-referentiality feels out-of-place. Whether it be an imbalance between narrative build and pay-out, a case of linguistic loveliness sugar-coating something unoriginal, or a simple lack of ambition, I couldn’t help but feel like some of them just couldn’t hold their own. None is a bad poem, but the bar was high, and the odd weighting left me wanting more.
Kisuule and Konig have done an admirable job of identifying a direction and aiming for it. If only the second half had been as strong as the first, this would be a great collection.