Reviewed by Linda M. Robertson
Virtual Artist Collective
In a 2010 interview for Camera Obscura, Rosebud Ben-Oni says, “The identity of a Mexican bordertown is problematic; the transience, violence and instability of its character are sometimes romanticized and often demonized. But it is also a place to live in the lyrical, as well as find inspiration and affirmation of the human will.” Many poems in Solecism consider places and people scarred by formidable living conditions and violence. Ben-Oni consigns the reader an unflinching focus onto these people and places with deft language, line, and sonically sensitive writing. These poems are personal, at times painful, and often bear witness to scenes we would rather turn away from.
One such bordertown is Matamoros, Mexico, which lies on the southern border of the Rio Grande, directly across from Brownsville, Texas. Matamoros is a site of maquiladoras, where manufacturing occurs in a free-trade zone. The first poems in the collection expose the difficult conditions in a colonia or neighborhood called “Sal Si Puedes,” which translates into “Leave if you can.” The speaker in “At Ten I Held the Look of Locust” considers when “the Americans came and built a factory for the women/to work with solvents and a playground for their children,” and where “Twenty years later, the factory is condemned, but the playground stands/with a sign in English: WARNING: toxic waste, no playing.”
Matamoros is also a beach town where “even the gulls scuttle[d] from the surf,” and horrific scenes occur frequently:
Workers hanging from scaffolds of a patiobar
spotted the waves scattering the next body.
This one, a Brownsville journalist
tied up in a metal drum and doused
with slow-burning gasoline.
The edges of this world are serrated and sharp; Ben-Oni’s language is direct and cuts to the quick. The tone is beautifully ominous; the voices are haunting as they reveal a place where “Shells gather like cemetery flowers./A warning from where mermaids/siesta in the shark’s atrium.”
Ben-Oni’s poems also consider other countries that are rife with conflict: Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon; sites where there’s “Nothing new to report: charred clothing/for the photographers,” and yet heroics are observed there too:
…It took a youth to go back into the burning house,
and fall out of smoke with the Arab…
…He, natural as a father,
ushered the Arab into an ambulance,
slamming its doors on her gown
and then stooped off into the street.
No one called after him…
The poet also writes about the place she returns to after her travels, New York City. In “Off the Q” she describes her building:
…where the trains no longer keep me awake
passing by below, open and exposed,
the sharp sound of metal and voltage
like a grace note off a drum roll,
the snare head loose and low.
This building houses people who seem more community than strangers, where:
There are the boys whose father sits outside
in a wheelchair late on school nights
and twice a year he’s risen
to give a shakedown to those
who’ve dared to follow me home.
Teenage girls hang near the tiny mailboxes
that hold nothing, until the grandmas
come over with their laundry carts
and tell them they’d better get to school,
or they’ll always be in this falling apart
and given to leak…
Ben-Oni was born to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father. Several poems disclose the poet’s sense of divided self. In “For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,” the speaker says:
...That's how dangerous is loved, that's friendly ethnic. But now you've offended by writing this. You have to be careful in conferences by ethnicities you half belong to. Nothing sings how there is never unity for you...
The imagery in Solecism is striking, often startlingly; the voices are unafraid to speak challenging truths. Rosebud Ben-Oni’s work bears poetic witness of places both dangerous and real. The poems tap at the reader’s social conscience and heart; a tapping that continues long after the book’s covers have been closed.