Anybody by Ari Banias
Review by Jayme Ringleb
Anybody, Ari Banias’s debut collection, examines our invented understanding of a world we’ve codified with language and made, because of these codifications, at times less visible to ourselves and to our own understandings. So many of the collection’s poems interrogate the taxonomical and transactional erasures created by human naming, particularly as this act of naming turns on us, on human life. And so pronouns come into play in Anybody, of course, but also of interest to Banias are objects we might categorize as quotidian, inconspicuous, or relatively unimportant. For Banias, these objects give us access to a better understanding of both ourselves and the erasures that language has performed on us. Because of this, Banias’s speakers take on a kind of reverence for the objects they encounter: from pockets to plastic bags, snowballs to shit, everything in Anybody is seen as an extension of human seeing, of the world as it relates to the self, and of how we relate to one another.
In “Volley,” a poem whose central image is a small balloon, Banias writes, “think what this balloon might represent / if we passed it back and forth / and took turns adding our breath.” Objects—especially given our ideas of objects, which we so commonly internalize and apply to the human body—are, for Banias, opportunities for intimacy and connection: “Volley” closes,
I can’t just say innocent; I know that.
But I’m going to say innocent.
Innocent as a balloon
not meant to last.
Think of it handed back and forth between us.
This loaded, deceptively simple image seems in many ways central to Banias’s debut collection. If human naming has the potential to erase complexity—evidenced most clearly when some use language to marginalize or perpetuate the marginalization of others—then the project of Anybody is to use language, instead, to see and understand better, to see again.
“To learn to see beyond my seeing / I need to admit everything,” writes Banias in his poem “One Possible Reading Among Many,” but the confessions of Anybody often aren’t as autobiographical as they are epistemological—and I think much of the brilliance of Banias’s collection exists in the way its poems use this epistemological approach to expand and trouble our sense of unity. “Some Kind of We,” the collection’s first poem, focuses on this troubled but intimate notion of unification:
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.
And much of the trouble of this idea of unification comes forward in the book through notions of gender. Among Anybody’s autobiographical confessions—and there seem to be many, some relating to love and sexuality, some to familial expectation and a somewhat distanced sense of Greek heritage—one that comes to the forefront is Banias’s being a man, which is informed by his also being trans. Banias uses this, then, to inform the epistemologies of many of his poem’s speakers, who investigate notions of gender, often male gender, and how these invented notions contribute to a divisive and damaging exclusivity, one that disrupts and abandons notions of “we” for, instead, the boundary between “them” and “us.” In “The Men,” Banias begins, “It seems necessary to say I watch them. / It seems necessary: them. This distance / between us. How at times it can shrink, then grow // with the removal of clothing.” The tongue-in-cheek of “shrink, then grow” becomes an outright theme for the poem and an indictment of the anatomical policing that gay cis culture wants to perform both overtly and invisibly:
Someone says take out your dick,
I want to see it.
I lose him
on a forking path.
I’m standing some yards behind the men
who watch the men; we’re watching us
ass-up on a blanket.
“A boy’s a man
who can’t get hard.”
in only a towel.
Suppose I could, I can.
Find a way
of walking into their us….
But “The Men,” like Anybody as a whole, is far from unforgiving in its indictments; by its end, the poem identifies a kind of “sweetness” in, of all things, the idea that “a hole is a hole is a hole is a hole.” As Banias turns Stein a bit on her head, there is a punning, complicated sense of inclusion here, and one that returns us to the foundationally complicated role of language in the larger and largely marginalizing social epistemologies the collection takes on.
In all this difficulty, Banias uncannily maintains complex tonal balance in each of the poems, which move, often line to line, from the playful and allusive to the somber, heartrending, and biting. There’s a kind of thrilling drama in Banias’s craftwork, one in which the overall vulnerability of the poems becomes all the more vulnerable because of the way the poems are infused also with humor. “Giant Snowballs” is, I think, a poem of particular tonal range. Here, the indictments of “The Men” turn slightly, playfully inward, and the speaker of “Giant Snowballs” immediately establishes a fundamental loneliness that becomes central to the occasion of its speaker’s observations:
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.
We have a coy, delicate turn here from a kind of good-humored self-chiding to a difficult way of self-seeing, and it’s a structure Banias echoes at the poem’s close, by which point a new snow has allowed for more snowballs to be added to those that had sat separated for so long:
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.
It’s a small, quick gesture. And it’s one that is indicative of the way the collection handles its tonalities: reading and rereading through Anybody, I find myself surprised at the turns Banias makes, and I find myself surprised at their effects, which often bite at the heart, often suddenly and deeply.
Anybody is a collection that pops and delights on first read, and then, under the lens of a second, expands and rewards. So many poems I wanted to speak about I’ve left out of this review—among them, “On Pockets,” “Close,” and “Our Wild Domesticated Inner Life.” And I’ve quoted mostly from poems of the first section here, in part because that section so deftly introduces both the major themes of the collection and Banias’s way of seeing and writing, but also because so many of the later poems reward a kind of blindness going in. And rewarding that blindness, I think, particularly given the major themes of the collection, is fitting. Much of what Anybody succeeds at is seeing again and seeing better, which demands of us the very difficult and necessary human and social task of, first, looking beyond our seeing.
Jayme Ringleb has received scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he has received fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat. Some of his poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in jubilat, Gulf Coast, The Journal, Puerto del Sol, At Length, The Adroit Journal, and Sixth Finch. Jayme grew up in upstate South Carolina and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, and he currently teaches in Tallahassee, Florida.