on Anybody, poems by Ari Banias (W.W. Norton)
Poetry is sparking with the urgency to expose the ways in which historical, cultural, physiological, and personal meanings impinge on our use of language. For some poets, a reluctance to engage primarily with -- and present the mediated “I” within the context of -- these given connections is tantamount to approving stereotypes and ignoring the pressures exerted on identity, thought, and behavior.
Sometimes, the “I” may not have a sufficient center of gravity to call itself an “I” at all. At other times, the “I” of autobiographical narrative wades gamely into the space of its speaking, embodying the struggle to enact a presence that one consents to and is gratifying in some manner for others to encounter. In response to intrusive meanings experienced as continuous cuts, a poet may design speech as disrupted, distracted, disturbed. A fragment attests to the attack on the wished-for whole.
Ari Banias’ first book of poems, Anybody, testifies impactfully not only to the groping for speech while oppressed – but also to the oppressive sense of the limits of one’s experience and expression. In the poem’s opening piece, “Some Kind of We,” he spells out the impetus to speak: “because / it is this year in this country and I am this person / with this set of meanings on my body …” And in “An Arrow”: “Who cares what men are. Can’t we / scrap this whole enterprise, / top-down management / small talk, normative dating …” But Banias isn’t an op-ed writer in disguise nor is he inclined merely to play up to an audience that will agree with his stance in advance.
ONE POSSIBLE READING MONG MANY
A person can learn to live
under various sorts of conditions.
This current room features furniture
for resting and furniture for eating
pushed as far apart as possible to give
the feel of two distinct spaces,
opposing sides like lovers’ backs
turned mute in sleep or argument –
soured but determined, its whole arrangement
I see myself right now sitting at a desk, and ten years from now
sitting at a desk, and in between
climbing a parched hill wild with thyme,
fucking strangers who stay strangers and others
who won’t, and feeling bored the way
I felt bored as a child,, boundlessly, as if boredom were a disease
that touched everything the eye did.
Today the books on the table lie shut.
I’ve stacked them
like a row of class portraits in which
one after the next the faces perform what they have learned, or they try very much
not to perform it. To learn to see beyond my seeing
I need to admit everything.
Banias begins his book with a wish for the possibility of a we comprising self-defined components. The wish is a threshold – but then one proceeds into “this current room.” He peers at a certain condition of things including his own inclination to enforce division, “two distinct spaces … its whole arrangement / a stubbornness.” Everything depends on seeing what is actually there, and what is there is not all there is. The longing to escape the clutch of power is one thing; the escape, a fleeting potential, is another. “My freedoms stirred until they turned constraints,” he writes in “Morphology.” Banias won’t allow the indulgent pretense of inhabiting a higher plane of existence. At the same time, a liberating perception is pending.
His work points directly to a heightened social responsibility for the self’s appearance on the page and an obligation to acknowledge its speech as a scripted determination. But Anybody wants to exceed its immediate affiliations and facts without diminishing their relevance. When he writes, “To learn beyond my seeing / I need to admit everything,” he tells us that admitting everything (if “admit” means “confess”) isn’t everything. If “admit” suggests entrance, then we begin to ask questions about what we’re seeing.
Anybody admits to the unique nature of itself, but it isn’t a litany of confessions. As Stanley Plumly has said, “autobiography is the means by which archetypes are renewed.” Archetypal meaning hasn’t fared well during the recent decades of semiotics because it is said to favor a priori meanings. But the archetypal is the thing in us that keeps returning. Transformation and metamorphosis are the dynamic actions of myth and story -- and the obsessive desires of Anybody.
BEING WITH YOU MAKES ME THINK ABOUT
We is something like a cloud. How big, how thick,
its shape – ambiguous. We is moving across
a magnificent sky. We see the sky all around us but
also we can look down at our own hands.
A cloud is a changing thing. Sometimes we are an animal
smiling, clawing at something
not there. Other times we spread out so thin we almost
don’t exist. We are thickening just now. A sea of slow
knitting. And soon it will rain, and we
will be down in the grass again.
A blade of grass gets thirsty;
it’s nice to think we could quench that.
It’s something we could really be good at. But then
arms get in the way,
remind us we’re separate. Lying side by side
and looking into another pair of eyes as if
there’s a way to see into the dark
pupil’s pit, some place “beyond.”
Other times whose hands are whose,
our mouths together the permeable
entrance to the bright underworld chamber,
and a rush of remembering
all eyes are lit from behind, the wiring rigged back to the same
source, like putting together so many
small things you have a better, bigger thing.
Relative to what? It doesn’t matter.
There’s something to be said for individuality,
multiplied. The earth is breathing out through countless eyes
asking every possible ray of light to meet every possible rainstorm.
They do attract. And aloneness only keeps getting bigger.
One day we will tell all about it. At our own table.
There are things we cannot see. Most things. Most of all.
There are many endearing moments in these poems -- such as when in “Enough,” Banias imagines meeting “the hottest person of my dreams” – a moment quickly followed by searing critique:
… though the notion I have to be ready
with choice wit like a blurb for my soul repeals me,
and at other times just the assumption my beloved is white,
the idea of white people loving each other at all
when in whiteness together we steamroll what matters,
that we a fake universal I’ve wanted to wreck
by how I live, if we look at it hard enough
would we actually still love each other? I feel sick.
It is not his specific opinions that pierce me but his vulnerability – since I share the opinions but, having been otherwise compromised, I have turned my eyes away from the constancy of the hurt. There is also the shrewd rhythm of the book – the shifting between personal and public, narrative and statement, short and long lines, lyricism and prosiness. The personal is flecked with anger at times, readily acknowledged – and the pain of rejection during adolescence. And there is, of course, sententiousness in Banias’ work; my diverted eyes must be taught to look. “Enough” ends with attentiveness to the sidewalks of his neighborhood:
… though some days I’m sorry for the sidewalks too,
that countless human feet fall on until beyond repair
they crack and I ask myself under the attention of what
large abstracted force concentrated
into a singular point of pressure will I too someday come apart
The lyrical point of view is always limited but not all poets are compelled to indicate how their limits have been established. It’s especially intriguing to me when they find ways of suggesting how this has occurred. Banias is especially avid about offering this gesture. As his limits grate against his spirit, we feel the inflamed tension – and it’s hugely gratifying. In “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life,” he begins, “Experience is a lamb. Memory / leads that lamb by a rope …” At poem’s end, he writes about the lambs, “If you’re their shepherd maybe they are telling you to be alive / is to pull against something / far stronger than you.”
In other words, Banias’ poetry thrives on an antagonist as well as a compassionate listener. His art gathers the thriving and the antagonism into a generous third thing – his own “singular point of pressure” pressuring me to take full advantage of penetrating the situation of Anybody towards “the things we cannot see” but anybody can feel.
[Published September 20, 2016. 94 pages, $25.95]