Buzzed Books #50 by Amy Watkins
Ari Banias’ Anybody
Ari Banias’ debut collection, Anybody (Norton, 2016), begins with a poem titled “Some Kind of We.” In it, his reason for writing is laid out as plainly as a thesis statement in a freshman composition class:
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.
Throughout the book, that “we” changes shape, from the American everyperson to pairs of lovers to family to gender groups.
What holds each “we” together is tenuous. For instance, he imagines that every home in America holds “the large plastic bag / with slightly smaller mashed-together / plastic bags inside.” As a basis for a poetic national identity, it’s not much, but it’s also probably true. There’s a gallon-sized ziplock stuffed with plastic grocery bags in one of my kitchen drawers as we speak. I use them to line the bathroom trashcan. Banias’ poem continues: “it is overflowing, and we keeping adding, / bringing home more than we need.” We are excessive, but we knew that already, didn’t we?
In poems about more specific or more personal groups, the imagery carries more emotional weight. In “Villagers,” immigrants to the US are recognizable by “boxes taped up and up then tied with twine | addressed on every side | in that careful longhand taught on other continents.” Because one of the book’s “wes” is the speaker himself–a person who has inhabited multiple genders, carried multiple names–images of clothing are especially significant: a nightgown that becomes a jellyfish, a tuxedo, “a sundress on a splintery / swingset in Texas.” In one of the collection’s most poignant moments, his grandmother, oblivious to his bound breasts and changing identity, places her engagement ring on his finger and calls him beautiful.
Many of the poems rely on a Frank O’Hara-esque stream of consciousness–images and ideas racing ahead of the poet’s or the reader’s ability to logically categorize them. Poetry is made out of this kind of risky juxtaposition, but great metaphors are recognizable as well as unexpected:
Some taught me famous names, to drop the coins of these
in slots of conversation so with others I might feel like we.
This is new, but it’s also such an apt description of the awkward pop culture currency teenagers (and some adults) trade in that it feels almost familiar, as if we should always have thought of it this way. The same poem continues:
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.
That desire to be part of something bigger–to “feel like we” as well as “I”–is something that genuinely binds us as readers, as human beings. As Banias says in another poem, “There’s something to be said for individuality, / multiplied.”
Pair with a six-pack of whatever you like. Share it with someone.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.