anybody, by Ari Banias; Primer, by Aaron Smith - Review by Dale Boyer
Every so often, poets appear who seem to have sprung, like Athena, fully formed and in armor. Two such poets -- and two such volumes of poetry -- are anybody, a first volume of poetry by Ari Banias, and Primer, the third collection of poems by Aaron Smith. Anyone looking to find new and exciting work by two supremely talented LGBTQ voices need look no further.
Though anybody is a first collection, it is one that was reportedly 10 years in the making, and the years of effort are on display everywhere. Seldom does one run across such self-assurance, such apparent mastery of form and voice, in a first book, which is perhaps ironic, considering that Banias is a trans poet. I confess, I read anybody, at first, thinking it was the work of a gay male poet. Then, when I stumbled across an interview with Banias and realized he had transitioned from female to male, I went back and reread the book, and it seemed like an entirely different collection. Notions of gender and sexuality absolutely do affect how we see the world, which, for Banias, is precisely the point and the problem.
Banias begins this exploration in poems that ask what various pronouns mean. What does "we" mean, for instance -- what collective group? White? Black? Latino? Male? Female? Similarly, what is represented by "I" -- especially an "I" that feels restless and uncertain about its gender? As Banias puts it, growing up with a recognition of gender difference meant understanding: "it is this year in this country and I am this person/with this set of meanings on my body" (Some Kind of We). Society, in other words, projects certain expectations onto individuals based upon their perceived gender. So, what happens when that gender changes? What new roles are required, and what perceptions are subsequently altered, both on the part of the perceiver and the perceived?
This notion of formlessness and uncertainty is carried through in a very 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 states, are "a staple of intimate transport both private and exposed." They are negative spaces; but, Banias also 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, of course, 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 in that space. Banias wryly and comically continues the analogy in Giant Snowballs, when -- trying to describe the snowman's body, he says: 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 this whole concept of wrestling with the sense of gender and the body, with its lower case 'a," and the implicit sense that -- quite literally -- anybody is "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 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?" Or even, perhaps: "the possibility of//my body."?
Once surgery has been taken care of, Banias, in Handshake, then faces the dilemma of what kind of man 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
The point is that individuals inescapably play a role in any given society. So, in this new identity, which role do you choose? Banias has obviously wrestled with a lot over the years, and out of such efforts, a unique and indelible presence has been forged. His poetry is absolutely electric with intelligence and skill. It is poetry made by someone who seemingly -- pun intended -- just embodies poetry, right down to their very bones.
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. That he can write about such subjects so fearlessly, and with a sense of humor, makes him a poet to watch.
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 from Smith that he has always disappointed his parents and other people by being gay seems to be an echo of societal taboos. He writes of a world in which, always: "your father /will clench when you hug him." (Shoot). It is a world in which the poet's lust was "bleached and clean as my grandmother's sink." At one point, Smith 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" (Bleached).
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 fairly typical of the work. At one point, 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 (Blue Exits).
Smith's work feels extraordinarily lived-in and felt. Absolutely everything about Primer feels right, in fact, 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. Both Banias and Smith strike me very much as poets who have not only arrived, fully formed, but are very much here to stay.