May 2013

Anne Champion


Solecism by Rosebud Ben-Oni

I cannot be a historian.
We tell our stories by mouth only,
We do not hold our stories in such
Rigid restraints; if they change by another's
Tongue, we simply tell them again.

So sings the battle cry of Rosebud Ben-Oni's defiant and triumphant collection Solecism in the poem "The Current Political Situation of the Roma." "Solecism" refers to any trespassing of normal grammatical boundaries or any type of general impropriety. Ben-Oni, born to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, explores cultural trespassing in the midst of a multicultural atmosphere whose rigid categories create a dizzying and disorienting sense of exclusion for the speakers of these poems -- voices desperate to assert truths while carving out a contact zone in which various cultures intermingle and collide. Solecism, through its use of associative, narrative, and lyric techniques, rich in imagery, similes and extended metaphors, provides a stunning and rich panorama of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Jewish culture.

Ben-Oni begins her collection with poignant poems exploring bewildered feelings of childhood. In "The Reply of Sal Si Puedes," she writes:

I am the mistress of fragmentation.
Vestige of what's allowable but
Hardly livable.
Mosaic of outlander passings.

This abstract image of a fragmented mosaic could be seen as vibrant, colorful, and richly layered, but later in the poem, Ben-Oni writes that "History skips over my life." This dark and biting line makes it easy to see why the mosaic provides little satisfaction and a well of grief in childhood: the speaker has no historical narrative in which she neatly fits. However, Ben-Oni resists sympathy ploys, turning the poem's tone once again:

Tear me down again --
I'll grease rouge on my wounds.
I was born with clothes
ripped in the right places.

Here, the voice is clearly that of any adult with the reflective capability to appreciate her cultural struggle. The voice commands its threat through a defiant and powerful bitterness, reclaiming her authentic self through her anger.

This theme of race appears in many of the poems, and it functions like a wound that desperately needs to be interrogated in order to heal. In "For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin," Ben-Oni writes:

            And yet adaptation has made you

like the sparrow -- what is always suddenly,
            in the fray, stealing crumbs from larger birds.

devouring what it can in the chase,
            helpless to an unsightly candor.

The form of this particular poem works well in embodying the meaning: the couplets move back and forth across the page, mirroring the speaker's shifting alliance between races and the push and pull that this creates. The lines create a friction between one another, and the ending simile of the sparrow is simultaneously tender and vulnerable. Sparrows flit in peripheries, but Ben-Oni brings the plight to the forefront, a powerful simile for the speaker's personal struggle.

The struggle undoubtedly entails a search for identity and legacy. In many of the poems, the speaker places herself within imagined realms of historical references in order to fulfill her quest. In "Shoal," a longer sectional poem, Ben-Oni writes:

You call yourself                     an Annex Jew --

From the Frick's untouchable pools
sinking down
an upright bass on the Bowery

you and the pianist climb the terrace of Beatrice Inn

you are lost among long tables of refugees
and folk hymn muffled on Allen Street

It's a painful re-imagining of the self that harkens to the Holocaust while imagining streets and locations in New York City in which many displaced refugees sought shelter and new lives. The speaker sees herself as lost here, and the folk hymns, which may carry hints at her history and legacy, cannot be audibly heard. Later in the poem, she writes:

here strikes your last prayer
a bruised howl in the wall
and oh, to sleep
to sleep through

the brute of dawn

Here, the language turns violent and brutal. The prayer, in which the speaker cries out for a sense of spirituality, is likened to a "bruised howl" -- clearly, even the instinct for holiness feels abusive to this speaker, as does the clichéd promises of new days.

Additionally, many poems cover tragedy and trauma in the exploration of volatile political situations in the Middle East. The voice in these poems is surprisingly passive and stoic, yet precise. Consider these lines from "Proof of Absence":

People who I don't know at all
ask me what it's like to survive
a bombing. They are shocked

to hear it is like bad music
I can't get out of my head.

For most people, a bad song stuck in one's head proves to be little more than an annoyance, yet here it has the power to be haunting, harassing, invasive, and even psychologically abusive. While the speaker seems flippant in discussing these occurrences, her passiveness actually exposes her vengeful anger amidst her feelings of helplessness, and her stoicism reveals a harbored grudge for repeated violence, and her powerful images are perfectly chosen with all of their underlying associations carefully considered.

In one of the final poems of the collection, and one of my personal favorite poems, "A Poem for My Niece on No Particular Day," Ben-Oni shifts her speaker from bitter and confused to hopeful and visionary. She creates a litany of wishes for her niece that depicts a richly lived life. In the final lines, the poem feels like a wish for all people, a wish that gently confronts the seedy underbelly of multiculturalism and reveals humanity's vast potential for optimism. She ends the poem with these tenderly loving lines:

may you be more April than Spring, may you unstitch the seams
of sentences, and from them know eternity,
ebbing and endless, crown of light, as you sing
the day -- into night.

Solecism by Rosebud Ben-Oni
Virtual Artists Collective
ISBN: 978-0944048504
80 pages