Rosebud Ben-Oni’s stunning first collection, Solecism, challenges the artificial hierarchies that we impose upon language. The collection uses a female speaker’s memories of childhood—which encompass Mexico, Jerusalem, and the United States—as a point of entry to compelling questions about the nature of communication: Why are certain modes of thinking and writing invested with more authority than others? How do existing structures of power manifest in the way we think about different types of language? Can poetry constitute a form of activism? As Ben-Oni considers possible answers to these questions, her poetry dazzles with its defiant use of received literary forms.
Ben-Oni’s use of couplets and tercets proves especially impressive as the book unfolds. Throughout the book, one encounter poems that appear pristine on the surface, but within these inherited poetic forms, readers find a provocative fragmentation of meaning. It is this presentation of subversive content within the guise of tradition, homage, and conformity that makes Ben-Oni’s work so intriguing. By creating this discontinuity between form and content, she suggests that the categories we impose upon language are ill-fitted, misleading. Consider “For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,” in which she writes,
Here Ben-Oni critiques the politics of canon formation, yet presents this biting commentary within neatly crafted couplets. Her formalism is provocative and defiant, more so than had the poem been written in an experimental literary form. By presenting her incisive and scornful analysis within the confines of tradition, Ben-Oni suggests that linguistic insurgency is possible even within the strictest constraints. Solecism is filled with finely crafted poems like this one, which call attention to the politics language usage.
In many ways, the poems in Solecism that make use of less conventional literary forms—which range from lyric fragments to the commentary on an academic paper—make similar claims about the artificial nature of the categories we impose upon language. These poems offer incisive commentary with subtly, wit, and lyricism. While the collection displays a great formal range, Ben-Oni’s preoccupation with the politics inherent in writing, speaking, and communicating lend unity to this stylistically diverse collection. She writes, for instance, in “The Current Political Situation of the Roma,”
There is progress, yes.
There are scholars and lobbyists,
journalists, philanthropists and bigots—
Begins to vague.
That last word is unnecessary.
So edit out what you like.
The bottom line is…
there is a returning being built up:
erected, shining and…poignant.
Not quite sure about your tone here.
Do not be imprudent with italics. (38)
In my opinion, Ben-Oni’s use of an academic paper (and its accompanying commentary) as a poetic form is fascinating. She adeptly illustrates the ways that existing power structures in society are gradually internalized, leading individuals to censor even their innermost thoughts. The speaker of the poem has been subjected to the type of grading, evaluation, and policing, which has in turn become part of her consciousness. The piece suggests that this damage is difficult to undo, but, in many ways, it presents poetry as part of the solution. For Ben-Oni, the literary arts constitute a form of activism, affording a space where grammar, syntax, and other conventions can be interrogated. In short, Solecism is a smart, self-aware, and beautifully written book of poetry—a wonderful debut from a talented new writer.