by Ari Banias
W.W. Norton. 112 pages, $25.95
by Aaron Smith
University of Pittsburgh Press
104 pages, $15.95
EVERY SO OFTEN, a poet appears who seems to have sprung fully armed from the head of Zeus. Two such poets are Ari Banias with his first book of poetry, anybody, and Aaron Smith with his third collection, Primer. Anyone looking to find new and exciting work by two highly talented gay voices need look no further.
According to the author, anybody was ten years in the making, and the years of effort are everywhere on display. Banias begins this exploration with poems that ask what various pronouns mean. What does “we” mean, for instance—what collective group? Similarly, what is represented by “I”—especially an “I” that feels restless and uncertain about its gender? As Banias puts it in “Some Kind of We,” growing up with a recognition of gender difference meant understanding that “it is this year in this country and I am this person/ with this set of meanings on my body.” Society projects certain expectations onto individuals according to their perceived gender; so what happens when that gender changes? What new roles are required, and how are perceptions altered on the part of both the perceiver and the perceived?
This notion of formlessness and uncertainty is carried through in a literal way in the poem “Wilder,” where the lack of any kind of form—the poem is one big block of text—is precisely the point, and seems to echo the poet’s similar state. “On Pockets” continues the exploration of form and void. Pockets, as the poet points out, are “a staple of intimate transport both private and exposed.” But also, Banias notes, while pockets contain one set of meanings out in the rigidly gendered world, at home, “where my pockets no longer exist their relevance declines.”
What’s being played with here is the whole notion of the self as possessing a body in a certain space, and what roles and assumptions are made about that self and that body. Banias wryly continues the analogy in “Giant Snowballs” when, trying to describe the snowman’s body, he writes: “I’m trying not to say ‘snowman’/ but we know. He’s blank/ and numb and separated/ so much from himself.” The very title of the collection, anybody, both points to and puns on the concept of the body, with its lower case “a” and the implicit sense that anybody is, quite literally, “any body.” We all construct notions of self, but when an individual creates a notion of the self that’s at odds with how the world perceives it, what then?
Banias’ own struggles with this question are brought poignantly to bear in “Double Mastectomy,” in which the central metaphor of transsexual surgery is likened to a century-old house, now being demolished and cut up into fragments and remnants of its former self: “The curved banister, the glass knobs/ where were these now—/ some dump?” He then wonders what “Could be made of these parts/ Frankenstein—home?”
Once surgery has been taken care of, Banias faces in “Handshake” the dilemma of what kind of man he is to be, or as he puts it: “the question of what it means to be a white dude/ after having been a white girl.” As Banias enumerates them, here are the choices for those kinds of men: “cheating husband, vapid fag/ checked-out corporate guy, self-centered evolved guy, sensitive/ yet inarticulate, predator, messiah, martyr, angry man, father/ god-awful!” The point is that individuals inescapably play a role in any given society. So, in this new gender identity, what role do you choose? Banias has obviously wrestled with a lot over the years, and out of such efforts a unique and indelible personality has been forged. These are poems by someone who embodies poetry in a quite literal sense.
Aaron Smith’s Primer is poetry of a darker sort. Smith is obviously someone who has wrestled with shame about being gay, as well as depression and suicide. Some lines from “Driving North On Interstate 99 The Poet Considers His Life at Forty” are fairly typical of Primer’s themes: “I understood today/ why my mother cries when I leave:/ she got nothing she wished for at the driveway’s edge.”
This sense that he has always disappointed his parents and other people by being gay is an echo of societal taboos. Smith writes of a world in which, always: “your father/ will clench when you hug him.” In “Shoot,” it is a world in which the poet’s lust was “bleached and clean as my grandmother’s sink.” In “Bleached,” he asks: “What was I so afraid of?/ I felt like a gay man with a secret wife,/ or like what I was:/ a gay man who was afraid of what he might like.”
Such a worldview inevitably leads to suicidal thoughts, as in “Still Life with Antidepressants”: “I’m spelling words with pills/ spilled consolidating bottles:/ yes and try and most of happy:/ Maybe I’ll empty them all.” That sense of humor, inextricably bound up with an urge toward nihilism, is also typical of his work. At one point in “Blue Exits,” Smith even echoes his readers’ concerns: “Are you going to hurt yourself?/ Isn’t that what it means to be alive?/ Are you going to hurt yourself?/ No, but if you ask me that again/ I’m going to hurt you.”
Smith’s work feels extraordinarily lived-in and deeply felt. Indeed everything about Primer feels right, from the cover art, with its painting of a smudged-out face obscured by hasty brushwork, to the xxx fleurons reminiscent of nullity and slashed wrists. Again, as with Banias’ work, how ironic that poetry whose subject matter deals so often with notions of gender fluidity, indecision about the nature of self, or the desire to bring that existence to an end should feel so amazingly present and alive. Both Banias and Smith strike me as poets who have arrived fully formed, or nearly so, and are surely here to stay.
Dale Boyer has contributed numerous reviews to this publication. He is the author of The Dandelion Cloud.