Book Review

It’s a phrase that was once an entrenched part of the contemporary idiom, and to many people it might still be that way. Proper English, correct speaking, how to sound and write and, in effect, be. Edited by Kyoo Lee, the premise of the recent anthology Queenzenglish.mp3: poetry | philosophy | performativity is, of course, that the Queen’s “English” is only one of many Englishes, and how some of them are in fact direct repudiations of the Queen’s ostensibly pristine version. As Lee writes in the volume’s introduction, Queenzenglish.mp3 is representative of “a reflexive critique of the self-colonializing idea that knowledge and success are premised on the mastery of the English language . . .” Specific to that idea is the definite article the—there is no one English language. There is no the English language. Queenzenglish.mp3 thereby seeks to “unleash the polyphonically transformative potentials of qENG.”

Each contributor to the anthology thus approaches this limitlessness in their own way. In his “A BRIEF HISTORY” Kit Robinson breaks down how “from its beginnings English has been a conglomerate language,” before—at the piece’s end—asserting that in the twenty-first century “English is beginning to give way to Chinese as lingua franca of global commerce . . . The number of young Americans studying Mandarin doubled from 2009 to 2015. The writing is on the wall, and it doesn’t sound like Queen’s English.” Other contributors, such as James Sherry, additionally contemplate the rigid and oppressive cultural norms and expectations that something like the Queen’s English posits, writing that:

“. . . the politics of grammar is based on a game where the prize is power. If I can make you write syntax like I do then you have a predilection to construct ideas like I do. While we may then have conflicts of self-interest, we continue to play the game of prisoner over and again as opposed to breaking omerta.”

Playing the “game of prisoner over and again” is an established part of the Queen’s English pedagogical approach—if all English language users write in the same ways, adhering to the same societal-sanctioned standards, then hopefully they’ll also all eventually arrive at the same established conclusions, in the same cookie-cutter manner(s). Even if it’s a subconscious one, conformity and groupthink (Consistency is King!) is the ultimate goal of the Queen’s English. And as we share the same codified language predilections, we share the same thoughts and perceptions. The Queen’s English is the enemy of the nonnormative.

If Robinson and Sherry examine historical and cultural contexts in their essays in Queenzenglish.mp3, other contributors go to some length to creatively oppose even the vaguest intimation of writing in some variation of the Queen’s English in the anthology. Interrogating all notions of linguistic primacy and ownership, Dannie Ruth’s poem “pro nouns” states:

what lies between we
you, he, she, us, & free?
myself. me. The queen

of a free mind on the edge
of a galaxy progressin
possessin without apostrophe.

In a somewhat similar vein, Erica Hunt’s poem “Compliance” opens with the assertion “I live between the folds of not enough and way too much, satisfying neither,” before going on to declare “To solve this, I am asked to describe N sides of the story. For instance, she/I/they cross their feet. She/I/they cross out a line. She/I/they step on a sidewalk crack, the cobblestones are full of them, walking away from a conclusion.”

“To stay on the right side of realism, we avoid being crushed” is one of the refrains of “Compliance,” with the poem’s speaker taking care to neither be too quiet nor too loud. Just enough of the one to not disrupt the other; the scales must never be tipped. The Queen is always watching, of course, and, impassive, inert, her eyes contain no shades of gray.

Still other works in Queenzenglish.mp3 by robin tremblay-mcgaw, Eileen Myles, and Yanyi incorporate (real or imagined) personal history. In his “Family Tree (After Luc Sante),” Yanyi writes, “The cost of being Chinese American is absorbing English as the primary text. English is a primary text of Orientalism. My work as an artist is to try and talk to myself about my own race . . . I confront my history through the distorted lens of my education.”

It is this “distorted lens” that the Queen’s English attempts to force upon all English language speakers (and many non-English language speakers) as the only lens, or at least the only one worth respecting and adhering to. Queenzenglish.mp3 thereby acts as both a creative and critical bastion against that misguided oneness. The success of the anthology resides in its multiplicity, of course—every speaker of English has their own idiosyncratic English, worthy of acknowledgment—but even that point is self-evident and reductive. The ultimate takeaway from a volume like Queenzenglish.mp3 is that antiquated concepts like the Queen’s English will soon be obsolete if they aren’t in fact already. There is no master tongue because there is no master, nor has there ever been one.

About the Reviewer

Recent work by Jeff Alessandrelli appears or is forthcoming in BOMB, Poetry London, and the Hong Kong Review of Books. Called “an example of radical humility . . . its poems enact a quiet persistent empathy in the world of creative writing” by The Kenyon Review, Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019), which the UK press Broken Sleep will release a version of in June 2021.

In addition to his writing work Alessandrelli also directs the non-profit record label/press Fonograf Ed.