Solecism cover art © VAC/Rosebud Ben-Oni
One of the greatest shortages in contemporary literature, at least up until the immediate present, is the lack of unique, fresh perspectives. As the world, and especially the United States, becomes more and more integrated, so will the arts. The overwhelming number of single-race novelists and poets coincided with the obvious distinction between races. Luckily, the world has become more and more open, and the barriers between racial integration (literal and metaphorical) have been broken down. Thus, we are starting to see books like Solecism by Rosebud Ben-Oni that offer a refreshingly new perspective on what it was like growing up in the divide between extremely different cultures, and what it is like now.
Ms. Ben-Oni, the daughter of a Mexican mother and Jewish father, can not only speak from the perspective of two races that have their own distinct literary cultures and tropes, but she can also speak as a woman with a foot in each camp. In the poem titled ‘For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,’ the author takes aim at the assumptions made about her by both outsiders of her cultures as well as the current state of each. She writes,
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.
Turn not to your parents: love still blindsides them.
In this poem, the author speaks honestly about her subject, telling the audience that even though some consider race to be a sort of trope that “is no longer taboo,” it is still a part of who she is. In other words, how can the truth of one’s emotions be considered passé?
The structure of this book is of particular note in terms of the author’s distinct perspective. Early on, there are a series of poems related to Sal Si Puedes, which as the author notes in a footnote, is a common name for Mexican neighborhoods that means “leave if you can.” The author introduces the audience to Mexican culture and her heritage, drenching readers with the despair and deserted life of a child growing up there. The book moves forward though, to allow the author to focus on her Jewish heritage as well.
The middle section weaves a tapestry of Jewish coming-of-age, especially for a child of mixed heritage. In the second section of the poem ‘Shoal,’ the author brilliant evokes the sound of the hard times she faced.
In Hebrew School you could not hide
your mother’s tongue, the trilling Rs
and dragging intonations from your Israeli
teacher Ziva who came from dirty, dusty Afula.
There is music made in this passage, as the audience merges the image and sound of a young girl that already speaks two languages being forced to shed her accent in order to learn a completely new one.
Just as Ms. Ben-Oni’s earlier passages about growing up in Mexico evoke the desert landscape of the country, so do the poems in this middle section speak to Israel and conflict in the Middle East. She speaks of going to funerals in Jerusalem, and in the poem ‘Palms of Lebanon,’ uses the imagery of palms and other distinct images of that area of the world to evoke the war and destruction of the combat in the Gaza region. From the poem,
a lull in war
the last trunks mourn
new bullet thorns
And later in the same poem, one of my favorite passages from the book,
branches flip their swords at the planes
tomorrow uproots that stagnant
heel stranded in mud
tomorrow bends in the head
and burning sea
The final third of this book concerns New York City, the last place that infuses the author’s voice and perspective. The author reflects on everything in these poems, speaking on New York as a place and what it does for a young, female, mixed-race writer. These poems are often at first brimming with fear, but with a closer look comes a calmness and moments of self-reflection. The speaker comments on her surroundings and what it’s like living in such a diverse, sometimes dangerous, city. At the end of the poem ‘Off the Q,’ the speaker thinks about her past and future,
Even deep within I hear the rumble of the train,
and for that reason I’m moved to believe
that Jesus might very well love me,
a Jew who writes on the Sabbath,
as another train rolls in,
though more faintly.
I’m still waiting
for what grows in broken concrete
among the weeds and jagged ends.
Solecism is defined at the beginning of the book as “1. nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, 2. breach of good manners or etiquette, 3. any error, impropriety or inconsistency.” A perfect title for a book that does not have a standard viewpoint or follow the tried-and-true rules of poetry and literature. Ms. Ben-Oni attacks the status quo of the literary world, as well as the different cultures that have contributed to her life and art. The poems in this book use sound and meaning to weave a wonderful tapestry of beauty from a wide variety of materials.
— Spenser Davis (twitter.com/spenserdavis)
Spenser is a freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas Christian University, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus and TCU’s student literary journal, 1147.