Justin Goodman reviews ‘Green Horses on the Wall’ by Cristina A Bejan

‘Green Horses on the Wall’ by Cristina A Bejan
Published by Finishing Line Press
ISBN 978-1646622191, $13.99

 

 

There’s something like an ecosystem among Instapoets, Button Poetry, and now Cristina Bejan in her debut collection published from Finishing Line Press, ‘Green Horses On The Wall’. There’s the texture of confessional poetry, the anti-elaborateness of indie rock, the theatrics of spoken word, through which runs the uncomfortable sensibilities of the information age. The discomfort being that poetry is not information: at its most didactic, poetry is monologue, speech in the size and shape of information. And this, it feels, is how these poets enroll the reader in a sentimental education. The common mood is that we have so much to catch up on, so we need to make up for lost time by grabbing a quick bite of love or trauma. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily. It’s a commune of feelings, a democratization like planning a shotgun fire drill in a car still predominantly driven by white, middle-class men. Yet it’s this very rawness that also makes them stifling to talk about. Much like with a tweet, it feels unworkable to distinguish a reaction to the poem from a reaction to the poet. Maybe in that sense it’s right to say Bejan’s ‘Green Horses On The Walls’ is a complicated, challenging collection.

 

Part of this might come down to the fact that, as Bejan writes in a recent article published here in ‘The Blue Nib’, “My poems are not developed through an MFA program. They have been written for open mic stages as spoken word poems.” Whatever power a line like ‘so secret that those in the know–know it’s there/those who don’t know live in ignorant bliss’ might have when performed is turned absurdly self-evident when read. A poem like ‘A Tricky Diaspora,’ a litany of comedic and serious observations about the Romanian diaspora (‘The only thing we are known for is not exactly our history – ‘Dracula’ diaspora’), sits uncomfortably between sufficient and awkward on the page; a fact reinforced by going to Bejan’s YouTube account and hearing it improved by her snarky, sing-song tone. Romanian phrases are interspersed, such as in the titles ‘Nu e rolul meu’ and ‘Scumpul Meu,’ which are followed by the translations ‘[It Is Not My Role]’ and ‘[My Dear]’ respectively. Read aloud this isn’t an issue, even if it’s not as graceful as Juan Felipe Herrera’s weaving of Spanish and English into the structure of his poem ‘Borderbus.’ But, written, the brackets are reminders that this is speech, not poetry.

 

Reading ‘Green Horses On The Wall’ is equivalent to “you had to be there.” Take ‘On Efate’ for example:

 

‘On Efate
While doing yoga on our lagoon-side patio
I noticed a canoe in the water
Holding four men who watched me through binoculars
I waved
At that moment my cellphone rang
And the first lady invited me to her island’

 

The impulse is to cynically tag this as #thathappened and move on. Stepping back from that immediate frustration, what does this say? One might read it as in the same spirit as Lucille Clifton’s ‘Won’t You Celebrate With Me,’ an expression of self-love and endurance. Which would mesh well with the fact that Efate is part of Vanuatu, the country featured in ‘#Simplicity’ as the home of an abusive ex who she leaves in pursuit of ‘my empire of 1 right now’ which “hormones” had driven her to “compromise.” Yet, if it’s about self-love, why does it require a luxurious ‘lagoon-side patio,’ ‘four men’ ogling, and a call from ‘the first lady’ (of what, who knows)? Clifton’s poem empowers through the shock of its survivalist final lines: ‘come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.’ ‘On Efate’ feels vainglorious besides it.

 

When Rebecca Watts said in her now infamous 2018 review of Holly McNish’s ‘Plum’ that it was “the product not of a poet but of a personality,” the spirit of her argument had weight despite its bonemeal traditionalism. This insistence on personhood as poetry is all over ‘Green Horses on the Wall’ from ‘Înainte [Forward]’ ending with ‘I will be,’ to ‘you always have a choice/be authentic to yourself’ in ‘2010,’ to ‘my hope and prayer is that I can also be an end in itself’ in ‘My Prayer’ (itself a reference to Kantian ideas of personhood, which she wrote about in her 2004 thesis ‘The Autonomy of the Individual In A Newly Free Society’). This individualism seems almost countered by drawing on her family’s tortured experiences under Ceauşescu’s authoritarian Romania. For every suburbanism (‘I have an insatiable curiosity, a quenchless Wanderlust, an antipathy to conformity and zero tolerance for bullshit’ sounds like a targeted ad from an overly specific t-shirt), there’s an ‘Opening The Orange Envelope’ which makes tangible a Romanian experience hinted at in ‘A Tricky Diaspora.’ It almost feels like, for Bejan, poetry is the curative to the question and answer of ‘Opening The Orange Envelope’: ‘What does this terror look like? Imagine no conversation being secret.’ Say it all, whatever it is.

 

This is not to say that the quivering anger of a poem like ‘To My Rapist–or ‘the man who raped me’ rather–with Gratitude’ should never be expressed, nor that celebrations of breaking away from abusive Vanuatan partners erased. But what’s embodied in this kind of poetry is all too human. In her monograph ‘Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania’, published last year, the overarching metaphor is rhinocerization: ‘conversion to extremism and collective political thinking.’ This year, in ‘America World Police, Inside Empty,’ she critiques the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan before saying in ‘Lasantha’ that a man ‘some people think [is] guilty of war crimes’ has a ‘light inside [him] more blinding than the sun.’ These positions seem irreconcilable contradictions. Yet, if this tension shows anything, it shows our sentimental complexity. Fittingly, Bejan’s stage name is ‘Lady Godiva’ – the noblewoman most famous for the legend of her nude ride through town as an act of protest against government oppression.  ‘Green Horses On The Wall’ is a book that rides nakedly.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! This reviewer did not remotely try to hide his anger and misogyny. It would have been a more credible review if he had spent his time carefully reading the poems in the order they were presented than Googling the poet’s biography and writing his review about that. He also could have used that time instead to look up things he didn’t understand in the poems: like the race of of the NiVanuatu people (they are Melanesian, black); or the fact that the indigenous people of Vanuatu are in fact called “NiVanuatu” (certainly not as he writes: “Vanuatan”!). A great example of his haste to judge and failure to read a poetry collection as a collection of poems is his questioning what kind of “First Lady” made the phone call in “On Efate.” The poem that directly follows, “Beyond Language,” is about a meeting between the former First Lady of Vanuatu and the author. The poet has written an amazing, thoughtful collection about often taboo topics (colonialism, totalitarianism, mental illness, sexual assault), with far more nuance and courage than this reviewer was able to discern based on his skim (and indeed blatantly gendered) “reading” of her book.

  2. The reviewer seems more concerned with his own metric for what passes as poetry than for the poet’s intentions and artistry. If the poet expressly states that these are based on spoken word, why criticize the poems for not reading well on the page? Why go beyond the pages of the book to her YouTube account and editorialize her performance as ‘snarky’? Should all poets be judged arbitrarily against Juan Felipe Herrera and Lucille Clifton? This collection should be reviewed on its own terms and how it impacts the Romanian diaspora, not based on his own internal framework of what constitutes worthy poetic expression.

  3. Came across this review because I get news alerts for “Cristina A. Bejan”. This is a pretty appalling personal attack (not really a literary review at all) steeped in sexism and American ignorance. Bejan is worth reading in all the genres she writes in. I was unfamiliar with Blue Nib until now and I am wondering how such venom and unprofessionalism could be published. I am also wondering how qualified Justin Goodman actually is. He is clearly not a serious or ethical reviewer. I looked him up and the only thing I could find was a short bio from 2018 saying he had a manuscript in progress with a press whose website is now out of date. Couldn’t find a book by Goodman published anywhere since then (Amazon, Google). Maybe such a review will pique people’s curiosity? For me it reflects most poorly on Goodman and the journal.