A review of Ota Benga by Elvis Alves

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ota Benga
By Elvis Alves
Mahaicony Books
Paperback: 28 pages, January 24, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0988432420

The poems in Elvis Alves’ new chapbook Ota Benga have a rhythm that is almost performative. Most of the poems have a subtle rhyme scheme that, when enriched by a modern undercurrent of political anger, comes across with a slam aesthetic. They work particularly well when spoken aloud, with the rhythms of a New York vernacular. Throughout the collection there is a common theme of enslavement versus freedom. Sometimes this is a literal slavery, involving cages, chains, theft, and pain, and sometimes it is the metaphorical slavery that comes with inequality, poverty, and the oppression of capitalistic power structures. Alves ties these all together smoothly and subtly through conjunction, never losing the rhythm or the underlying concepts in the work.

The collection contains two poems for Ota Benga. Ota Benga was a Mbuti pygmy born in the Congo, and bought to the US as a slave. He was kept in a human zoo exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in the early 20th Century. Benga committed suicide at the age of 32, longing to return home to his Congan forest.  His story is not only a disturbing one, it raises questions about the notion of ‘otherness’, and the way in which this designation is used as an excuse for exploitation. The first poem, “Ota Benga: Therapy”, is a personae poem in which Benga talks to a therapist. Both of the characters—Benga and the therapist—riff off one another, as if they were two voices belonging to a single person:

African man trapped in a cage and put on display
at the Bronx Zoo, you speak so lucidly. Tell me
more about the gaze and what it is that you see?

I see humanity staring back at me. And calamity
in the wake of rapid destructive entities: capitalism,
war, and poverty.

The second poem, “Ota Benga: Anniversary”, is a tribute poem, with Benga’s legacy his struggle for freedom against those who would de-humanise him, or who would like to forget such atrocities as Benga’s caging: the treatment of a human being with a wife and child as an animal, displayed for profit.

In “Contemporary Vestiges” we’re back in the 21st Century, a world where childrens’ television utopias like Sesame Street, Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood, Yogi Bear, and The Jetsons have become facades for an underbelly of Social Darwinism or survival of the richest, where “Everything is awry.” “Poor House” is another poem that takes us into a domestic scene of hopelessness, though it ends by reminding us that we are in the realm of poetry, and that there is a quantum impact from observation itself – the “observer effect”, once again bringing up the notion of the “other” in a completely different context: “Who am I? the narrator,/ the other.”

Other pieces provide stories – of character, of place, of moments of connection, and of admiration, such as the profile of Jamaica Kincaid’s character Lucy, from her 1990 novel:

Lucy is not a monkey,
or any other animal to
domesticate—make one’s own.
She is a black pearl. Mother to
the world. Never someone’s girl.

The collection ends with a short story about a man who decides to leave his well-paid job as a financial advisor to become a religious minister. The story, like all the writing in Alves’ short, sharp, collection is crisp and engaging, and links to many of the poetic themes in the book about the way we make meaning in our lives through the choices we make. Though Ota Benga is not a long collection, it is a thought-provoking book with a great deal of relevance to the nature of what it means to be alive and to find meaning in our modern and turbulent times.