Rosebud Ben-Oni’s second collection turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019) tags its raucous truth on all the subway tracks of your heart. Raw in its recounting of the complexities of love and channeling a “go big or go home” sentiment throughout, this collection holds bare-knuckled to the cultural phenomenon of Bonnie Taylor’s Total Eclipse of the Heart of which its title is the key lyric.
In Ben-Oni’s collection, the 1980s serve as the emotional through line for a transformational narrative about the power of recognizing and inevitably loving the monsters we all carry. Ben-Oni employs both outright and beautifully subtle 1980s pop culture references, from Cyndi Lauper to Xanadu to Duran Duran, not as sentimental fluff but to provide an emotional compass for how the speaker of these poems engages with the world around her. This is done powerfully in “If Delilah the Younger Sister”:
“Marilyn j michael manson of mine yes
Drunk in heart-shaped burlesque yes
The mosh pit oh the accidents
A cracked skull a copped feel fickle hands
Carrying us off if not a busted strobe
If not a ring-ripped nose if cracked
Concrete beneath now where do we go”
The 1980s was a decade of incredible highs and devastating lows, but its pop culture responded to it all at the same level of intensity. Ben-Oni’s poems operate at 1,000% at all times, whether playful, heartbroken, joyous, or lost she is consistently embodying the emotional volume of the time period. A student of the power ballad, Ben-Oni employs this dedication to emotional depth as she speaks of queer heartbreak, the fluidity of her Jewish and Mexican upbringing, and the monsters she was and still is.
Monsterness becomes the central process through which we experience Ben-Oni’s narrative. Ultimately, she believes in the transformational power of becoming, owning, and eventually loving the multiplicity of monsters we are and have for so many years denied. This is no easy task, as she says in “All the Wild Beasts I Have Been”:
“All the wild beasts I have been
Are ripping me apart again
I am a spiritual defector
In the time of
In the time of
I have a million excuses
I have failed
All those years I did not march
All those years I sprung
From some other head
From some other head
As some wild beast
As burning eyes
Of a chamseen”
Throughout the collection, we see this tearing at the seams, this desire to be accepted not in parts but as the sum of her complexities. In “Despite Their Best Efforts” she writes “Mira if we are the world / then I was a test of levees.” We learn that Ben-Oni has always struggled with others trying to contain and direct her but that she comes from a lineage of women who refused such stifling.
In “Guns on the Table” we see monsterness take on a more grounded form through her mother:
“My mama is guns on the table
Her first words in english
were make my day no
At 12 while abuelo hunted javelina along the border
She chased away a man who came to take their home
With a butcher’s knife
And then a shovel
After it all mama couldn’t walk straighter
She threw off every saint and every novio
Don’t forget she says why el mariachi dies alone”
Here Ben-Oni moves away from animalistic and mythological monsters to the ways in which her mother had to become a violent figure to survive, relating her to the pop culture antiheroes El Mariachi and “Dirty” Harry Callahan. It is here that Ben-Oni’s work shines, incorporating a multiplicity of ways to view the sudden and often necessary transformation of human into a monster.
In a series of poems titled “If _______ the Younger Sister” we see various characters fill this blank space, from Noah to Cain to Stripe to Benyamin to Delilah. Each provides a different perspective to Ben-Oni’s relationship with her family, her friends, and her lovers as a multiethnic, queer woman learning to love both herself and others. In one poem she becomes a kraken, in another a brundlefly, and in yet another the wilderness itself that houses so many monsters.
Monsterness is used as a testament to our various stages of growth as people. It is a charge to each of us to not leave the husks of our former selves behind but line them up in a row and declare I have always been all of these things at all times. This monsterness is turned on its head, given a positive spin as Ben-Oni finds those who love her for her truest self. This balance is struck beautifully and subtly in her frontispiece “Matarose Tags G-Dragon on the 7” about one of her many selves, Matarose. She writes “My man is a little afraid / of mata he accepts her tho / Lets her come & go / because I stay I am always.”
Beyond the words themselves, Ben-Oni commands a powerful, consistent, and unrelenting presence through her use of punctuation, syntax, and white space. Throughout its entire 58 pages, Ben-Oni uses end-line punctuation in only two poems; overwhelmingly her lyric flows uninterrupted as she uses ampersands, em dashes, and white space to create the sensation of a clock ticking right behind your ear. We see this in the opening of “Axolotls Do It Better So Now I Am an Axolotl”:
“Not all goodbyes are tragic unless they begin
for someone else & this one did & I can’t stop
carrying you under my coastal grooves
where there’s a hundred years
These stylistic choices move the reader forward at Ben-Oni’s intended roller coaster pace. Through both content and form, a high-stakes reading experience is curated, leaving us at the edge of our seat as only a 1980s ethos can.
Through these intense and high-speed interrogations of the self, Ben-Oni skillfully demands that we also interrogate ourselves. She subtly asks what would we do at our point of breaking, at the moment of heartbreak. Several poems reference a past love, a woman “who cross[es her] / one too many times,” who “whittled away [her] ability to bite,” who left “out a brick / house / stripped / of copper and sunbirds.” Yet these poems are here not only to recount the pain but also to provide a blueprint for moving on. In the world of this collection, only a monster can be strong enough to leave a toxic relationship, to choose self-love, and so Ben-Oni becomes the monster, not in the negative cultural sense we have been taught, but as a path toward living a fully realized life, in all its complexity.
In a 2002 interview with Playbill, the writer and producer of Bonnie Taylor’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Jim Steinman, said “I was trying to come up with a love song [for Bonnie] and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in the dark.” Ben-Oni sets out to tell a transformational story of someone who has always been labeled as “too much,” who feels the big, raucous feelings, and yet who is not inevitably beaten down by the world but survives it. Even thrives in it. Harnessing the power of darkness, accepting love’s place in it, and becoming the monster leads to happiness, acceptance, and a grander love. Ben-Oni doesn’t ask us to believe in the relationship between monsters and love, she forces us to know, at our very core, that the two are intertwined.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is the winner of the 2019 Alice James Award for If This Is the Age We End Discovery, forthcoming in 2021, and the author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019). She is a recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) and CantoMundo. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal ,Hunger Mountain, The Adroit Journal, The Southeast Review, North American Review, Salamander, Poetry Northwest, among others. Her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. She is currently editing a special chemistry poetry portfolio for Pleiades, and is finishing a series called The Atomic Sonnets, in honor of the Periodic Table’s 150th Birthday. Find her at Rosebudbenoni.com.