Reviewed by Padmaja Battani
Roxanna Bennett’s newest book of poetry The Untranslatable I is a saga of ineffable pain that follows wherever they travel. Their work is an exhaustive struggle in explaining restraints of disabled body and the meagerness of language that fails to decipher their pain. Pain like a tidal wave that stretches across the entire collection depicting their fragility in conceding.
The initial poem ‘Babelfish Key: Wherever You Go, There You Are’, speaks about how the pain travels along with them and can be unmanageable. Various medications meant for treating aches and anxiety in diverse places from Oxford, Ajax, Paris and Berlin have the same message “your pain is a tidal wave our system can’t manage”. Pain knows no geographical boundaries is the implied message here.
Feeling not belonging either in Oxford or elsewhere, seeing everything perfect but them, the poet weeps silently to keep up their pride. The only option is to sidle as crawling is a social stigma. ‘Travel Diary: From Sappho to Suffrage’ is a striking poem full of quivers and pronounces language as immobilized.
“Across the street at Bodleian
Language is chained, flash-frozen
Do we, can we change reaction?”
Their anguish spills off the page in the way they describe their weakness by ignoring the self-importance in regarding what people think about their crawling, weeping, moaning, begging or being ugly, crazy, poor. Though this characteristic seems to be quite personal, it is applicable to everyone. All of us care more about what others think of us over what we want for us to be more contented or comfortable.
‘CBT Worksheet #42: What do you do for a living’ is quite significant and runs like list poetry. The list starts with the very basic deeds of inhale and exhale. To wait seems to be the dominant task – wait to fill out forms, for prescriptions to be filled, for an opening, for doctor to return from vacation and absolutely for “a single breath that makes this worth the wait”.
There seems to be a connection between Nick Cave’s grief, the lonely (extinct) dodo and its unhatched eggs and their kid across the ocean. A metaphor (from Shakespeare’s the Tempest) of their child ‘an ocean full fathom five and their bones made the pearls of their eyes’ is beautifully used while humming lullabies far from home and worrying whether the kid ate.
Poems carved with ache and anguish reveal the experiences and emotions of those for whom the act of “mourning feels performative”. For them, pain becomes synonym for vacation – “No I am not on vacation, cripple’s a 24/7 vacation” Pain has no season and doesn’t care whether it is cousin’s wedding, their own reading. It just invades them ceaselessly (Travel Dairy: Doing Laundry in Germany).
Despite writing about aches and isolation, Bennett’s poetry is also about the disparities and painful truths about starving kids in ‘Gratitude Journal IV: In Nunavut, a land of plenty, food insecurity abounds’.
“70 dollar watermelons in Nunavut
We got bored of starving kids in Africa
But lucky us, there are hungry kids in Oshawa”
Another poem Gratitude Journal V: “Dignity Aids” documents the plights of disabled. It reflects that ODSP does not cover the gears and assistive devices ranging from therapy, vitamins, toilet paper and toilet paper reaching sticks, Epsom salts to gluten-free groceries and Pepto-Bismol. They are indeed required for upholding their pride and being sick is more downsized than privileged with “part-time shelter for fulltime disorders”.
The theme of disability and despair is woven into these poems from the beginning to the end. Pain is the background, the foundation that reinforces the poet’s thoughts, words, attitude, travels and their life. Sometimes even the very act of writing is also painful. “It hurts to scribe, to type, to move the line” (‘Travel Diary: Delightful Butcher Bird’). They wonder how much more weight to lose and how long to wait to rest in Sedlec ossuary. “I’m so alone & frightened Buddy, hold my bones” is a plea that breaks readers’ hearts. “What does it mean to die unseen knowing; no one cared to intervened” is the question no one has an answer for.
Throughout the book, they use metaphor of Douglas Adams’ Babel fish, a universal translator. Yet the fear of being misunderstood is ever existent and they have not spoken in years to anyone but their kid.
Strong sense of craft and a lot of emotions add so much eminence to their work. Phrases like “may be pain is a prayer the body makes”; “Can I tolerate enough radiation to illuminate suffering”; “But pain desires me like a dominant lover”; “I sing the thousand hymns of pain”; “but I have a PhD in melancholy” and “trapped on an island of my own conditioning” manifest the solidity of misery.
Though their deeper hurts, and vulnerabilities are portrayed through these travel diaries, postcards and gratitude journals, they also reveal the enormous strength and frayed faith.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you”, a phrase I wish I knew in every language” from ‘Travel Diary: The Well of Initiation’ précises the central theme of this collection.
Padmaja Battani, originally from India, lives in Ottawa/Connecticut. She received an MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Sierra Poetry Festival, Trouvaille Review, New Pages, Coffee People Zine and Black Cat Magazine. Her latest passion is hiking. She is currently working on a Poetry Collection.
The disabled poem-making entity known as Roxanna Bennett gratefully resides on aboriginal land. They are the author of The Untranslatable I (Gordon Hill Press, 2021) and the award-winning Unmeaningable (Gordon Hill Press, 2019).