Fall is a season for poetry. The cooler temperatures and the ever-earlier evening make for a perfect opportunity to settle down in a comfortable chair with book of poems. And Ari Banias’ new poetry collection “Anybody” leaves us with no excuse but to indulge ourselves.
This collection, a delight mélange of the personal and transcendent, sketches the poet’s experience of identity and queerness against the backdrop of nature. And, more often than not, nature itself plays an active part, revealing to us the arbitrariness of the things we assume to be natural. Banias, through frequently changing geography, rethinks and reshapes the ways in which we conceive of person and gender, and challenges us to see beyond the artificialness of the landscape we often create for ourselves. The poem “Morphology” illustrates this clearly:
But I at the shore of a sea, I on the pebbled, tar-smeared edge
of an island. There hungered or grumbled or stood an astonished I
I picked at like a splinter once part of something bigger.
Following in the way of Walt Whitman’s universal “I,” Banias challenges the way we think of pronouns: “Some called I she, or he (or it or they).” As with Whitman, the nameless “anybody” of Banias also gives these poems a certain universal property.
The emphasis on universality, however, is in no way a limit on the range or versatility of the collection. The author deftly handles a number of subjects with wide-ranging titles, such as “On Pockets,” which begins with a discussion of the various implications of pockets in Dickens’ novels, or “Double Mastectomy,” which likens the “creaking house we lived in” to “the possibility of my body.” Banias even manages a poem composed entirely of the names of gay bars from across America. In each of these poems, we see the author demonstrate an ability to confront and confound the narrow views of gender in a way that feels both ordinary and transcendent.
The most remarkable thing about this collection and Banias as a writer, however, is the clarity of each image, evoked with a confidence and tone that are decidedly American. My favorite poem in the book (“Prairie Restoration Project”) opens with such unequivocal clarity: “The Midwest is a huge flat kitchen table I’m sitting at, drinking rusty water, looking at a huge flat field out the window.” Once again, nature compels the speaker to consider “How many fields like this there are ahead of us.” And as in many of the poems, Banias looks to the natural world to see what is human and into human experience to see the natural world reflected back at us. The comparison to Whitman, or even to Gary Snyder, again is fitting.
That this is his first book-length collection is yet another testament to Banias’ great talents. As is inevitably the case, some poems stand taller than others. But it is without exception a very good collection. Banias’ power to transcend the ordinary with shining natural metaphor sets him apart from much contemporary poetry. And I fully expect his future collections to accompany chilly fall afternoons just as well as this one.
“Anybody” poems by Ari Banias
W.W. Norton & Co.