Review by Roxana Cazan
“From the start I was told my dreams / Weren’t possible / That I was crazy / That I needed to be serious / That theatre was a hobby / I was always merely chasing the green horses / And it was time to grow up / Because they didn’t exist,” writes Cristina A. Bejan in her debut collection Green Horses on the Walls (Finishing Line Press, 2020). This is often what children born to immigrant parents hear growing up, an attempt at righting the wrongs that compelled the parents to uproot themselves and move. Through its searing attention to the challenges of embracing a hyphenated identity both as a second-generation immigrant living in the diaspora and as a poet whose verses coalesce from trauma—Bejan is a Romanian-American poet-survivor—this collection astounds the reader with its overwhelming earnestness. The poems display a resistance to narrative, while still unavoidably relying on it, as they illustrate fragments of a life both halted and propelled by the violence of immigration, communism, mental health issues, and sexual assault. The poems together speak about an equilibrium, a way to survive trauma by finding an outlet through which to recreate oneself.
The poem that holds the key to understanding this collection is entitled “Equilibrium.” In it, the speaker puts into balance the experiences that underlie a world of pettiness and hurt with the noble moments when she is able to grasp a flicker of hope. “People may shit on each other here, but that is not all they do” because “a young city man buy[s] an old country man / breakfast,” “[a]nd when it feels like too much—which it often does / I know I can go home. I know I have a home / And how many people can say that?” Regardless of how many hurdles life can throw at the speaker, she concludes that as long as “someone somewhere, even here, is listening” to her story, then she is “standing in equilibrium.”
“Opening the Orange Envelope” is a prose poem in which the reader is called as witness to a negotiation between the language of evidence and that of transcendence, as Philip Metres says in an essay on the documentary poem. Bejan strings together vignettes that show glimpses of the ways in which her grandparents and parents struggled to survive communism and its lingering ghost, living with the terror of being followed, caught, and imprisoned as enemies of the state. As she retells these narrative fragments, she also presents her own anxiety at having inherited her family’s trauma. The poem underscores the effect of listening intently to stories of hurt and peeking into the notorious orange envelope that contains photographs of her family’s survivors of communism. By listening to other stories, both the speaker and the reader experience an erasure, an expansion, and ultimately a reclamation of identity.
Other poems illustrate the speaker’s traumatic past as a victim of sexual and emotional abuse. The poem entitled “To my rapist—or ‘the man who raped me’ rather—with Gratitude” employs anaphora to list the many ways in which sexual abuse has affected the speaker. Through a hypnotic whirlpool of “thank yous,” the anaphora lends the poem the quality of an incantation, so that by the end, the speaker can actually be thankful that she was able to survive her rape. She writes, “People can tell you: forgive, move on, it’s in the past/ But every day the victim has so much to thank the rapist for/ See?/ So, my rapist, thank you for your exit today from my mind and life.” That this poem is therapeutic, describing in chilling detail the incident and its aftermath, is clear to the reader. But the poem does more: it establishes the purpose of the entire collection, as all the poems together offer a therapy session of sorts to a wandering soul seeking a safe place to land on.
As she writes her way towards and away from her Romanian identity and her trauma, Bejan leaves the reader with one lesson to ponder: “with the days and the years/ Everything that I’ve seen will make sense/ And I will understand why I was given this path/ And/ With no more hopping, no more escaping, no more means/ Breath by breath/ Here/ I will be free.”
Finishing Line Press, May 27, 2020, $13.99 paperback (46p), ISBN: 1646622154.