Kendra Guidolin

The (Dis)Placement of the Self: Roxanna Bennett’s The Untranslatable I

It’s been just over a year since I recovered from my last flare up—when I last spent the night in the emergency department, visiting nearby nurses offices, responding over the phone with my fluids in and out in ounces. It was also around this time that my review of Roxanna Bennett’s previous collection was published. And seeing my thoughts alongside their poetry—particularly at a time where I felt so unheard—I began to recognize that the more I experience pain, the more I gain access to new sets of meanings that are otherwise inaccessible.

The Untranslatable I speaks directly to this. It recognizes that certain experiences remain exclusive to the bodies in which they are experienced. Just as both Bennett’s poetry suggests—as Elaine Scarry offers in The Body in Pain—pain and disability are experiences that perhaps cannot be entirely encompassed by language.

Bennett’s collection begins with their speaker journeying across Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, and with each new location, the reader is offered the narrator’s sense of displacement—their estranged view on foreign dishes, languages, and tourist destinations. And with each of these, the speaker offers a corresponding alliterative drug—a laundry list of concoctions that demonstrate the exhaustive process of finding relief from pain. The speaker then finds themself in the hospital—their symptoms unrelenting, their suffering inexpressible in ways that staff can understand or respond to.

In “Symptom Tracker: Food Ghosts,” the speaker uses place to examine their relation to their body: “In Prague, unable to eat, I envy / dogs the smell of chimney cake. In England / the food is perfume & blood.” Despite their awareness of their symptoms, their experiences in the body, they question or perhaps recognize the uncertainty of being within the body in pain. Perhaps knowing it is not, the speaker asks, “Is madness translatable, is pain?” Just as the speaker recognizes their experiences as a set of meanings exclusive to their own body, they come to recognize the inability to encapsulate an entire state of being in words of any language, spoken or otherwise.

In recognizing their pain eludes verbal expression and thus understanding, the speaker concludes that just as others cannot understand them, they cannot understand the experiences of others in return. This untranslatability, then, becomes a two-way differentiating between the normatively able-bodied and the non-normatively able-bodied: “‘I’m sorry, I can’t understand you,’ / a phrase I wish I knew / in every language” (“Travel Diary: The Well of Initiation”). But this inability to become transparent becomes both a means of reclaiming the body and placing the body at the mercy of those it relies upon—namely, those who aim to treat and diagnose it by understanding and naming it, perhaps even when it cannot be named or known in its entirety. After all, “a disorder misnamed can be a life sentence. / Or death, the immutable fact of it in [the] body” (“CBT Worksheet #47: Mourning People”).


Kendra Guidolin is a dancer and doctoral candidate based on the unceded and unsurrendered Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation. Her work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Dance Current, carte blanche, Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2), Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Dalhousie Review. [updated in 2022]

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