Reviews, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
Virtual Artists Collective, 2013
Perfect bound, 69 pp., $15
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Solecism is playwright and poet Rosebud Ben-Oni’s debut poetry collection, out earlier this year from Virtual Artists Collective. Hailing from a Mexican and Jewish background, Ben-Oni is positioned perfectly to write the diaspora, the disaffected, the colonized, and those caught between borderlands, as she has in this masterful debut work.
“Solecism,” the book prefaces, can be defined as:
1 nonstandard or ungrammatical usage
2 breach of good manners or etiquette
3 any error, impropriety or inconsistency
The opening poem, “At Ten I Held the Look of Locust,” sets the scene: “At ten, the Americans came and built a factory for the women / to work with solvents and a playground for their children.” And then, Ben-Oni writes, “I was unborn again, casting the look of locust, leather-rebellious nymph, / swarming in constant omission, twitching in sin.” This “constant omission” is present in so many things here: the lives of the people whose ability to self-sustain is dependent on the factory, which poisons both land and children; the toxic waste that taints the playground, built next to the factory; in the fact that “nothing ever grew in the colonia.” The omission is not only constant, but omnipresent. Even the locusts themselves swarm and strip crops. This is a land of “devastation, unsimple: / […] shameful place among pests.” But who are the pests? The American company who built the factory, the local government that allows its people to live in such destitution, or the locusts? Maybe the question is not one of or, but and.
Another location, or perhaps the same as in “Locust,” Sal Si Puedes (a name meaning “Leave if you can”), is the namesake for four poems in the collection. Sal Si Puedes is a name, a footnote tells us, commonly given to neighborhoods in both Latin America and the US, its geographic diversity evidence of its unfortunate reach. The people of Sal Si Puedes form a collective voice, projected through these poems. In “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” Ben-Oni writes,
I am the mistress of fragmentation.
Vestige of what’s allowable but
Mosaic of outlander passings.
But no, this is the place itself given voice, through its people. It questions:
Confused that I speak intelligently?
Think the pinched aren’t polysyllabic?
And another, “For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,” harnesses the voice of the mestizo/a, the child who is neither one or the other, but both, caught in between, nowhere yet in both places/spaces at once. There is a raw honesty here that breaks down the barriers of preconception. Here there is truth, and an anthem for many:
some say you gentrify the ghettos of the canon.
Whitewash over the boredom of limited choices,
the Other that no one will claim, your parts don’t look
the part in anything.
The discourse of the collection moves from Mexico to Israel and Lebanon to New York City. The poems of Solecism are always very aware of borders and their social constructs, however societally arbitrary or entrenched, and their often sharp edges. Ben-Oni’s language is likewise always sharp, direct, and honest. It asks the poignant questions some might not want to hear, but they are the vital questions. Solecism is a necessary work, one I would recommend to everyone.