Rosebud Ben-Oni’s opening salvo for her poetry collection Solecism, released this year from Virtual Artists Collective,
At ten, I held the look of locust and mothers of tarp and tin
held closer their unborn in the streets of childpits.
At ten, the Americans came and built a factory for the women
to work with solvents and a playground for their children.
is remarkable for how quickly it sets the stance, both aesthetic and political, which will hold through the whole collection: in the form of a lyric which recollects upon the speaker’s childhood from an adult perspective, a lyric which paints the location which partially formed that adulthood, we discover that which pressures and expands the lyric. Here is an I which will perform various roles, some of which are self-selected, others which are imposed by authorities. It is an I capable of addressing a you intimately in public, an I which will speak on behalf of those who may not be able to, all while disclosing its own vulnerability or ugliness. It is an I which proudly partakes of various geographic and ethnic backgrounds while recognizing that it cannot belong entirely to any of them, and in fact must celebrate its otherness to critique them—fitting, given that Ben-Oni is working from both a Mexican and Jewish heritage. This I is not I, is also, in the case of “At Ten I Held the Look of Locust,” the “lazy locust” which should be “devastating fields.” But the locust—when singular—is not the Biblical plague. Even were there a swarm, a swarm is only a plague to a fertile land, and the colonia Ben-Oni describes has no crop, has already been rendered barren by global capital’s search for cheaper labor in the maquiladoras on the U. S.-Mexican border. I find the moments in which the locust, the pest, the unborn might flip from negative to positive terms—the insignificant which gather into a storm, the insistent petitioner, the potential which remains unspent in actualization—to be my favorite. And the penultimate couplet,
Twenty years later, the factory is condemned, but the playground stands
with a sign in English: WARNING: Toxic waste, no playing.
reveals another aspect to this I: it speaks in an English that crosses borders with Hebrew and Spanish, and is footnoted lest the Anglophone audience complain. Ben-Oni suggests an asymmetry at play between her poems’ interior and exterior: with a foreign phrase, the Anglophone reader of a poem fails to understand a distant place; with a foreign phrase, the colonia reader of a sign fails to understand the threat he or she faces and the history of devastation done to their home.
Ben-Oni further develops said themes through a series of four poems on Sal Si Puedes, which, as she footnotes, “means ‘Leave if you can’ and is not an uncommon name for colonias and other neighborhoods found in the United States and Latin America.” In the last of the series, “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” it seems that this place (also no-place and many places) speaks on its own behalf instead of waiting for an advocate: “Confused that I speak intelligently? / Think the pinched aren’t polysyllabic? […] What if I experience— / Linguistic momentum / to earn Webster worth?” As much as Ben-Oni inhabits a poetics of advocacy and witness, she also seems aware that some political territories are underserved if not exploited by journalistic and Biblical rhetorics: “Quit photographing my children for / exposes of The Second Coming. / I’m sleepwalking through your Op-Eds. / I am not in your worldly terms.” The languages of these places must speak out against interruption. Reading the Sal Si Puedes series, I feel the flesh and the incisiveness behind Ben-Oni’s choice to title her collection as Solecism, a word she defines as
1 nonstandard or ungrammatical usage
2 breach of good manners or etiquette
3 any error, impropriety or inconsistency
That said, Ben-Oni does not, in my opinion, always intertwine the lyrical and political with utmost complexity. I think a political lyric serves two masters: on one hand, a fixed conviction about The Good (often enough among leftists, the abolition of the “The Good” signifier itself) and the obstacles to that Good (patriarchy, capitalism, etc.); on the other hand a negative capability that revels in deep-seated ambiguities, including the inability to know or act upon rational goals either collectively or individually. (If you don’t like Keats, might I suggest Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of la facultad instead.) Lyric doesn’t handle deductive logic, sloganeering, exhortation, tactics, maps or statistics terribly well. Furthermore, the polyvocality which a politics requires is often only simulated in a lyric poem (even with collaborative authorship). An author speaks about or in the stead of a political group, or selects and compiles quotations from the group, toward a silent reader. In the attempt to compress what may be a spatially or temporally interminable political conflict into a finite poem, an author is tempted to swap mythical figures in for polities and to risk aestheticizing the problems he or she seeks to make more apprehensible.
To illustrate, Ben-Oni’s “Agunah” begins with the lines
In absentia, he holds—you,
and humbled, shown your hair
in the shuq, shorn of husband.
which I suspect are intended to awaken me to the predicament of a women who “has been abandoned by her husband” and is caught in a legal purgatory. Instead, the lines pluck too hard upon the heart-strings. Even if I did more background research, I’d still see the poem’s stitching, not the subject the poem hoped to speak about. “Palms of Lebanon” opens with similar straining: “a lull in war / the last trunks mourn / new bullet thorns.” And when “The Current Political Situation of the Roma” finds its central polemic voice interrupted by an italicized workshop critic’s voice—“Begins too vague,” “Not quite sure about your tone here,” “Personal narrative is unacceptable”—I wonder why Ben-Oni doesn’t forego the workshop lyric with its supposedly petty strictures and adopt a slam, language, documentary, conceptual or whatever poetics for Solecism instead.
But I won’t wonder too long. Because too often the sound play is really good, as with lines like “When night was an octave lower, / and our eyes owl-wide” or “I’m a lychee peel in peril / Plates tipping off the table / By catnipped paw.” Too often the line breaks are really good:
giving way to a wonder
as simple and young as us
sliding in our socks
below a carillon of waking birds
and rain, as drawing the first weevil
from the cracks.
Too often, Ben-Oni’s imagination delights, as when she renders “The Gangster as Narwhal”: “how well you play a drowned / corpse, my deep diver, far from swan-spined // or supple-sighted.” It is through her skill with the means as much through her aims that I am transported, that I am allowed “on the other side / of the sealed window,” that I am permitted to glimpse the donkey in the dust storm.
Solecism, by Rosebud Ben-Oni. Virtual Artists Collective. 80 pages. $15.00, paper.
Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, Wisconsin.