500 Beaverbrook Court, Suite 330
Fredericton, New Brunswick, E3B 5X4
2015, 72 pp., $19.95, 9780864928733
W.W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York, 10110
2016, 112 pp., $25.95, 9780393247794
“I followed the trail out of the room, invigorated by the possibility of reinventing my own body. The meaning was mine, as long as I was with those who had the vision and vocabulary to understand my creation.”
― Nick Krieger, Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender
Poets, at the very least, can usually count on their readers’ willingness to enter places of discomfiture and unfamiliarity, unheimlich realms of surreal leapings and gendered or otherwise politicized questionings. Both Blythe and banias, the latter from a set of perspectives informed by Judith Butler’s notion of gender as a “performance,” craft poems like rooms we are privileged to enter, even if we can’t (and shouldn’t) easily feel comfort within their wall-less walls.
Ali Blythe’s moving collection of lyrics, Twoism, with its starkly mirrored cover, is a slow sleeper within the reader’s psyche. Although there are strong poems at the start of the book, the collection is more powerful when felt as a steady burner, a text determined to release its emotional weather as a mood that suffuses the mind. What strikes most in this consistent book (perhaps incurring the most dog-eared pages ever) is its fusion of what could be cold elements of the surreal with the tragic heat of feeling in a grotesquely apocalyptic era. The inclusion of post-modern syncretic features, such as a drawing or a faux crossword or even the number sequence of poems about characters called two, four, ten and thirteen that are scattered throughout, could seem forced or contrived, but don’t. They are key parts of a universe where love is detrital, vistas appear only to vanish and the core hope is that “something is about to / pick me up in its mouth and run.”
Twoism is smart. And Blythe knows the stanza inside out. Yet it’s brilliant not just because the poems make reference to Linnaeus or Narcissus, per se, but because such allusions are interwoven so sleekly that every reference is contemporary; there are no hierarchies of time or knowledge. All we absorb, Blythe’s sub-texts inscribe, can be a tool or a companion or a tormentor. We choose. Take the lyric “Theatre”:
The plastic tray on my bedside table
looks like it belongs in some future
operating theatre. Right now it has
arranged left to right a pair
of nail scissors, a smashed plastic lid
whose agony face speaks to me, three
hairpins pulled from your hair by my
lips last Saturday and a sentence I cut
from the National Post: “ – they’re Caesar
and Rome all over again.” I don’t know
what that means but I have a feeling
I’m about to, so I’ve kept it.
On that one tray resides symbols of the array of intentions in Blythe’s work: the sinister future simmerings, the personification of damaged objects, desire threading through in the creepy intimacy of the hard pins being drawn forth by the softness of lips. And then the collision of the present with an incipient awareness that the past never evaporates, but makes an eternal return to rewrite a similar narrative with slightly new characters, over & over, they are “Caesar and Rome” again (even more prescient given the recent shift to the unfortunate new US president).
Along with the allusiveness, the poems in Twoism resonate because Blythe is deeply conscious of line breaks and the power of stanzaic form. If a lyric begins as a couplet, a tercet or a quatrain, it remains aesthetically and aurally solid down the page. The longer sequences that appear closer to the end of the book, like “Charge” and “Everything Moving without me Moving,” retain their couplet-taut energy even as the fragments alter in length:
We were bottomless
weren’t we. I tell myself
the same story over and over
to keep awake. The one
where night goes missing
between us. Remember how
you promised it wouldn’t
come to this. The first
light good and punched
sleepless blue, our bashed
lupine skin and you, lying there, skinny
as a cattail, nude. Inured.
As is evident from the final lines in particular, Blythe’s ear is tuned to assonance, the ‘u’ sounds accreting into a tension between the final statement that the speaker is “inured” and the more plangent reality of vulnerability emphasized by the achingly repeated vowels. So much, taken individually, can serve as a pose, but Blythe’s lyricism haunts with the genuine, awkward and graceful discombobulations of living in the world as poet, as a human, while still aiming to be elaborate with love.
ari banias, his first book produced in a tastefully designed hard cover (an investment, it might be noted, that would never be witnessed in a poet’s initial foray with a Canadian publisher), presents with a much more overt (one could also read this as American) style of gendered and queered foregrounding. In the words of David Halperin, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.” With banias, the subject-slant is undeniable, irrefutable and, at times, necessarily overwhelming.
In the powerful piece, “One possible reading among many,” banias concludes, “to learn to see beyond my seeing / I need to admit everything,” lines that could serve as the underlying motivation behind the text. Which is not to say these poems aren’t rife with essential obfuscations, detachments and abject spaces where language is paramount to narrative clarity.
The rather bizarre poem, “Exquisite Corpse,” for instance, ends with the intense lexical imperatives:
if/lapels say a word then burn her
down to a pair of molten cufflinks
they piss on till normal.
It is expected
he kiss her and become a nightgown.
She wears him
in order to punch him down
until he sinks, until its said he is
painless as a house
or some comparable
soft-bodied animal that drifts.
Here, the subject matter, in its detachable nouns and random verbs, serves more as apparition, spectre, than tangible material to impart to the reader, at least in comparison to the mood or tone evinced here by the strange personifications, rifts in comprehension and disturbing lacunas between expectation and reality.
In other pieces, like “Double Mastectomy” or “Handshake,” banias acknowledges the “possibility of… body” and the problematics of gender transitioning where one must learn a new discourse of the flesh and societal expectations, especially since the choices are too often, in a patriarchally-limited culture, pathetic, as in these figures: “cheating husband, vapid fag, checked-out corporate guy, self-centered evolved guy … predator, messiah, martyr, angry man …” Yet, these are potentially only entrances to later unwritten-thus-far poems that will burrow more intently into such rare and terrible-beautiful experiences and constructs.
Conversely, a poem such as “Wedding” is a seemingly straightforward unfolding of a somewhat cataclysmic (but more common) event:
People, far too many people here—
drinking, leaning on the furniture,
congratulating my father
on his new life. Here’s
his young wife, young enough
to be my older sister.
She—if you can’t tell
the whole truth—is nice.
But he slams his glass
onto the table, yells
more now than ever. Unless
I remember him wrong. I know
I was afraid. Of him. And so.
I know I played alone
with dolls and that
we roughhoused, hard,
like brothers. What is a father
is a question like what
is home, or love. In the middle of the room
guests on the arms of the awful floral sofa
Mom wouldn’t get up from
when she heard. In the grey bathrobe
for a week, horrid splotches
of pink and purple flowers with green
for stems. Or leaves. I can’t
look at it. There’s something hot
behind my eyes another glass of wine
should take care of.
There are people I should say hello to.
Although this piece is flawed in its line breaks—banias definitely lacks Blythe’s intense consideration for the way the poem looks and scans on the page—it resonates with its use of the central symbol, the sofa, which is placed in both a scene of sorrow and one of celebration, the floral pattern echoing his mother’s fixed and discarded state along with the imagined bridal bouquets the father is allowed to claim as signifiers of his apparently (falsely) renewed life. The facility banias shows at shifting between poetic modes suggests the flexibility required to survive such delicately twisted wound-zones.
Poems can be potent spoken-word pieces, aimed toward public recitation like the lengthier polemic “Enough”: “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,” or the found list poem, “Gay Bars,” which reels off the names of “undergrounded” drinking establishments like a mantra of ghetto acceptance, “Touche / Temple / Nutbush / Club Try / Monkey Business / The Closet.”
In the longer poem, “At any given moment” however, somewhat more private unreelings of imagery and empathy occur:
We are eternally outside, two/wildflowers in soil, faces upturned. The elements tend to us/gently with rain and light
but then of course large people in gloves come to poke/plastic tags into the soil/right beside us to help us be seen correctly
though we’d rather it all be/a little less precise. I’m not just a flower./At any given moment I’m also a weed and/medicinal and food for some bees and I don’t know, just a thing.
Even though, at the close of this piece, banias requests that we “all come to our windows,” making the poem a social space, the poem also possesses the diminishing perspective, a merger between dreamlike and waking spaces and an ecologically gendered extended metaphor that must be read on the page for the mind to absorb it. This fusion is also exquisitely present in crucial poems like “The Feeling”, a lyric that questions why we poets are supposed to only write about the moon and love when we also need to speak of prisons and the police and many other forms of degradation:
Are we listening,
to poems? Not much.
Therefore I can say anything. No;
I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
banias makes direct statements that turn simple words into complex archeological digs for raw meaning. “Cancer’s sincere,” he writes bravely in “Bouquet,” “shit is, indigestion, resentment is sincere, sweat, dogs, mint, rust… genitals are sincere, though a flower is indifferent.” The aural patterning of these lines ramps up their sonority and thus consciousness in the reader’s psyche, tunnelling into the lexicon of an “examined life.”
Perhaps the most memorable poem in the book, though, is a sweetly consistent depiction of the speaker coming across, as per the title, “Giant Snowballs”:
All winter two giant snowballs stood in the center
of the trampled schoolyard, & another one
off to the side I felt foolish
feeling bad for. Every day
I observed them through the chainlink fence.
Three giant snowballs the strewn
parts of a would-be snowperson’s body.
I’m trying not to say “snowman”
but we know. He’s blank
and numb and separated
so much from himself. The segments of him
roughly equal in size: his head and his trunk and
the lower ball I won’t call legs.
Yesterday, it snowed,
so today the kids build new ones
all different sizes & blindingly white.
On the sides where the sun doesn’t shine,
shadows fall, light blue and uncomplicated.
Beside the largest snowball
rests a much smaller one, and I can’t help
but see them as mother and child
& wow what a stupid human cultural mess.
Now there are six snowballs and I miss
my old loneliness.
Here, banias glows with self-referential empathy, able to proffer a cultural critique embedded in a beautiful vision of the poet’s child-like capacity for negative capability, even with regard to supposedly inanimate objects. The terminal rhyme reverberates with the playful melancholy of childhood’s songs, shaping abstract gender consciousness into a moment of sensory and emotive connection.
anybody contains revolutionary, political, stirring and claim-staking (in a non-brutal sense) content. banias will hone these forms and approaches over time, and continue to explore the fissures in being in the lovely and terrifying world of now.
Catherine Owen is the author of ten collections of poetry and three of prose, including her compilation of interviews on writing called The Other 23 & a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and her short story collection, The Day of the Dead (Caitlin Press, 2016). Her work has been nominated for awards, toured Canada eight times and appeared in anthologies, as well as translations. She has been employed by both the Locations and the Props department in TV land, plays metal bass and has two cats: Solstice and Equinox.