THE LARGE PLASTIC BAG OF EXPERIENCE: A REVIEW OF ARI BANIAS’ ANYBODY
The first poem in Ari Banias’ Anybody begins firmly in the familiar, with a trope of lyric poetry more 18th century than 21st:
These churchbells bong out
one to another in easy conversation
that wants to say
things are okay,
things are okay—
But already, Banias’ choice of verb (the unpretentious and suggestively druggy “bong”) signals the work he’ll be doing to subvert and update the lyric throughout this debut collection.
“Some Kind of We” continues:
they are not okay, and I can’t
trust a churchbell, though I would like to
The reasons why the speaker “can’t / trust a churchbell” go unnamed in this poem, but they might have something to do with the anxiety he goes on to later explore concerning his complicity in masculinity and whiteness (forces that have, historically, been weaponized by the Church), as well as his trans identity and desire for other men. And yet this poem is far from hopeless. Wary of the solace offered by religion, Banias turns to a more reliable constant:
that in this country, in houses,
apartments, there somewhere is a cabinet or drawer
where it’s stashed, the large plastic bag
with slightly smaller mashed-together
plastic bags inside…
It’s a damning, uniquely American commonality, to be sure—“why am I writing about plastic bags,” the speaker wonders shortly thereafter—but in the poem’s ending, he points towards the promise of this shared phenomenon:
I am trying to write, generally and specifically, through what I see and what I know about my life (about our lives?), if in all this there can still be—tarnished, problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.
In a single breath, Banias undermines the concept of the universal while simultaneously insisting on the potential power of shared experience, the first of many ars-poetical moments in a collection committed to the possibility of this elusive, too-often illusive “we.”
This poem is something of a microcosm of the entire book, with its titular preoccupation with pronouns (Anybody itself is one, after all), their imperfections and their imperfect referents. In the poems that follow, the “we” is always shifting: at times it designates the speaker and, well, anybody; at other times it designates the speaker and a beloved; occasionally, the speaker and an old self.
In “Grandchild,” the first-person plural speaker(s) recounts a scene in which their Greek grandmother exclaims “What a beautiful girl,” though it has been “five years our chest inside two sports bras flattened.” Banias’ invocation of the first-person plural turns an otherwise familiar narrative of familial legacy into a study of double-consciousness and the private grief of defying expectation as a second-generation American. In the poem’s final stanza, the expansive pronoun serves to underscore the singularity of the speaker:
It will be time to start a family soon looking at our face touching the bristle of our hair saying Beautiful you are the only one who has my name
The first person plural is not the only person whose gaps and bridges Banias attends to. “Morphology” introduces us to two I’s—one italicized and the other not—
There hungered or grumbled or stood an astonished I
I picked at like a splinter once part of something bigger
while “An Arrow” calls the accuracy of its pronouns into question:
do “you” have a highway phobia like “I” do.
“The Men,” which takes place in the famed cruising grounds of Fire Island Pines, uses pronouns to explore belonging and the often phallocentric nature of cis gay culture:
It seems necessary to say I watch them.
It seems necessary: them. This distance
between us. How at times it can shrink, then grow
with the removal of clothing.
Banias’ attention to pronouns in this poem does not end with this I/them distinction. Throughout, he employs sentence fragments to separate the first-person “I” from the verb phrases of which it is the ostensible subject:
From here, it seems necessary to say I didn’t.
Join or belong but
there where mouth meets
crotch, I did
want to, I did. Walk along the paths…
Suppose I could, I can.
Find a way of walking into their us
This syntactical manipulation creates two simultaneous readings: one in which it is still easy to read these discrete sentences as a single clause interrupted with a period (“I didn’t. / Join,” “I did. Walk,” “I can. // Find”), and a second, more grammatically accurate but conceptually tricky reading. If readers accept the integrity of a period as necessarily terminating a clause, the second half of these constructions become second person commands (“Join,” “Walk,” “Find”). In doing so, Banias collapses the distance between the speaker and the reader of the poem, and his readers are, in effect, disallowed from remaining voyeurs to a poem that itself engages with the fraught boundary between looking and participation, proximity and distance.
Here, and elsewhere, Banias reminds us just how porous many boundaries are, even or especially the ones people are least likely to question. Appropriately, containers—which separate what’s outside them from what’s within—appear again and again throughout his poems: the aforementioned “large plastic bag / with slightly smaller mashed-together / plastic bags inside,” “Gender, the room / I see myself walking into,” windows, clothes, pockets, the body itself, boxes, et cetera. Many of these spaces overlap, of course, as do the “set of meanings” on the speaker’s body: masculine, trans, gay, lover, son, Greek, second generation, American.
If the boundaries between these categories are porous, however, Banias is careful to emphasize that they are not arbitrary—that is, not random—but ruled by complex systems and hierarchies. Of their early childhood in Texas, the speaker of “Narrative” recalls:
Because it was a border town there were other others, so we sort of belonged.
Banias is at his most essayistic in “Enough,” a poem which finds the speaker considering the dual possibilities of love and violence at a “highway rest stop” and repelled by
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.
What may seem here a sudden tonal swerve or shift in subject is one I’m confident the poem can recover from, and anyway I’m out to argue it’s no shift at all but rather a necessary widening of scope. This rest stop in question brims with white people of which I am yet another, and therefore I am to feel safe or at home
because honestly, prior to using the men’s room I bristle at the idea of who in it might threaten me, but hey the body calls loudly and so far I have come and gone each time unscathed which, like most violence or its absence, is not random.
In these stanzas, Banias offers a meaningful corrective to an all-too-common notion: that the world is a uniformly terrible place in which the fear of violence is equivalent among all people. If it is true that the fear of violence is universal, truer still is how the “set of meanings on [one’s] body” determines the likelihood that fear will be realized. Perhaps the only universal truth (“the large plastic bag” of experience, if you will) is the extent to which the identities people occupy shape their specific experiences of the world—that we are many, distinct, and nevertheless bunched up in this together.
Theodor Adorno offers an explanation at the start of “On Lyric Poetry and Society” that usefully connects the lyric to the universal: “The lyric work hopes to attain universality through unrestrained individuation” (I’m quoting from the 1991 Sherry Weber Nicholsen translation of Notes to Literature). The goal of the lyric, then, is universality, while its method is to individuate (Banias: “I / am trying to write, generally and specifically…”). As a result, the “danger particular to the lyric” is whether or not that “unrestrained individuation” does in fact yield “something binding and authentic”; according to Adorno, the successful lyric poem must both manifest and transcend the society in which it has been produced.
By these standards, much of the poetry facilely categorized as “lyric” (like the mainstream contemporary American tradition grounded in personal feeling and lineated free verse) has failed in its assumptions that the individuated lyric “I” is equally accessible to all people in the society from which it speaks, and of a Platonic reader devoid of any meaningfully different social context. But of course, as Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda succinctly remind us in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “[t]he universal is a fantasy.” So too is transcendence, and both of them racialized fantasies at that. To speak any truth that can resonate beyond the particularities of their position, a poet must understand every particularity of that position, and all the forces that intersect to determine their view of the world.
Banias is such a poet. It is questions about what constitutes the lyric and the universal—and the fraught attempts, poetic and sociopolitical, to delimit them—that drive his debut collection forward, and his readers into a more expansive, fully considered future. As he asks in the book’s final poem:
Whose turn is it to open-throated sing?
And what world’s turn is it
to be sung of, a thing made noticed
that isn’t, its beauty insisted. Who called again
to say what’s ugly? Who pointed
from the other side of town, and which
frayed hem of a chainlink fence
did they mean.
In training their attention on the past’s uninterrogated assumptions of both the lyric and the universal, Banias’ poems refuse them. “[A] necessary widening of scope,” indeed.