New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016. 112 pages. $25.95.
“At the end of a rope, all lambs act the same,” Ari Banias writes in his first poetry collection, Anybody. Banias’s poems, however, don’t all act the same, despite the recognizable condition of their voice, a Banias-ness that qualifies them in much the same way that an essential lambness defines all lambs. Here, we find a poem recounting a double mastectomy, a poem that disguises itself as philosophical treatise on pockets, poems that consider the intricacies of gender expression and identity, and poems that catalog the detritus of a life—“shitty toll plazas”; gazing for shapes in clouds; “a badly pruned bush / across the street.” Some of these poems guide the reader through extended metaphors, whereas others have the wanderlustful associative leaps of a dream; others attempt to define—or un-define, as with “Solve for X”—our language, while others dutifully strip-mine contemporary American culture to better understand how we witness and how we isolate. In doing so, he makes the claim that “Everything [is] a story,” even as “aloneness only keeps getting bigger.” This aloneness is made apparent by a tender, questioning, and occasionally playful lyric I, a self pluralized by its big-hearted concerns.
“We is something like a cloud. How big, how thick, / its shape—ambiguous. We is moving across / a magnificent sky,” Banias begins “Being With You Makes Me Think About,” a poem whose definitions for the first person plural each open onto another, like a blossom breaking through a blossom breaking through a blossom. This poem teaches the reader the scales Banias uses in order to make his music: a patchwork quilt of imagery, the fidelity to syntactical music rather than that of the line’s, the hesitant declarative of its rhetoric. The poem continues: “We see the sky all around us but / also, we can look down at our own hands.”
This meditation follows associative patterns that work through questions of point of view and perspective. In some way, the poem here seems to make a case for recursive understanding of the other, how the distant is as familiar and yet unknowable as the far, how all things define their opposites, that without the discrepancy between there and not there, neither would exist. The poem continues:
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 remember
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,
Indeed, these poems pose the existential crisis as a hopeful mannequin, a vision board in being one and one among. This act of becoming focuses largely on gender identity and expression. In “Grandchild,” a plural first person speaker describes themself as caught between two identities, that felt, even claimed, for oneself and that projected onto that body by others:
on the veranda in jeans and baggy t-shirt not
what she means by beauty hardly
a girl our hair barber-cut
five years our chest inside two sports bras flattened
further by the fabric bandage we pin close
around our torso adamant
inside of awkward gesture-awkward awkward
to speak dodging pronouns
The collection’s title Anybody speaks to the speaker’s initial dodging of pronouns, but it also suggests that the speaker can claim that gendered expression of the body, insisting that there is agency in the choice of gender. Additionally, the title functions in much the same way that Odysseus’s Nobody allows for self-preservation in the house of the cyclops Polyphemus, and it likewise supports the reader’s empathetic engagement with the speaker’s experience. It guides the reader into the lyric experience of someone claiming one’s own gender, making this experience more real to the reader, more personal.
Elsewhere in the collection, Banias attempts to tease out “things we cannot see,” perhaps making the case that poetry acts as both a microscope and telescope, drawing into its field of view what cannot be viewed with the naked human eye. “The Flattened Grass That Holds Your Shape” opens upon a thought about one’s ideas of perfection, the pastoral of the afterlife, in medias res:
So it turns out there is no clearing with sunlight and trumpets.
There is the grimy windowsill with its paint-cracked lip.
The refrigerator seeming to ready itself
for some moment when it will finally act. And the misery
of neighbors whose lives only touch
your life in this way: get the fuck out & don’t you dare & I swear
to God just you try. There is
no galloping triumph, righteous and purposed. No fatherly shield.
Compare this to the opening of Larry Levis’s “Boy in a Video Arcade”:
Some see a lake of fire at the end of it,
Or heaven’s guesswork, something always to be sketched in.
I see a sullen boy in a video arcade.
He’s the only one there at this hour, shoulders slightly bent above a machine.
I see the pimples on his chin, the scuffed linoleum on the floor.
I like the close-up, the detail. I like the pointlessness of it.
And the way it hasn’t imagined an ending to all this yet.
Both the poems follow the speaker on a mythos-exploding daydream of the unknowable, Banias imagining heaven as fraught suburbia and Levis, as a pimply teenager full of angst. Additionally, Banias seems sometimes to weave his language on the syntactical loom wrought by Levis, often shuttling its structure toward a conjunction-laden stream of statements with qualifications. In this way, the poems, like windows into the cow’s many stomachs, allow us to see how the speaker, having spoken, digests the “truthfulness” and consequences of each statement, sometimes regurgitating it back up, only to chew again the matter, now transformed into cud.
This is not to say that Banias’s poems are derivative; in fact, this is one of the most unique voices I have ever heard in a first book, and it likewise allows for our particular moment in time to become poetic, against the notion that poems must be about timeless things. Take, for instance, “A Sunset,” which begins: “I watch a woman take a photo / of a flowering tree with her phone.” The speaker then uses this everyday, even comically now thing to swing into some new train of thought, a part-ekphrastic, part-ars poetica-esque meditation on ephemerality and beauty:
I have taken photos of a sunset.
In person, “wow” “beautiful”
but the picture can only be
as interesting as a word repeated until emptied.
I think I believe this.
Sunset the word holds more than a photo could.
In drawing out the stakes of something as banal as taking a photo of a sunset, Banias challenges poetry to reinvigorate the lyric personal, the unique and individual faces of people. In this way the book has a feeling of an ecstatic hello, an invitation inside for anyone passing on the street. Like all good relationships, the book is complicated; its tone varies poem to poem, sometimes offering a litany of the names of “Gay Bars,” other times framing the speaker’s heart as a motorcycle, or “a hog riding solo, / highway hot, wind-smeared, ripping alongside a field,” and through all its interstates of narrative, candor, and image, it presents an intersectional cross section of the American lyric, providing the reader with many occasions for joy, for remembering, for “time to quiet down.”