Review by Eli Lynch-El Bechelany
W.W. Norton & Company
The most excited I’ve been about my creative writing degree was while creating a list of readings for my independent study, staring at my computer at 2am with dry eyes, researching and writing down the names of authors, centering queer, trans, and BIPOC voices. This was the first time it’s been possible to do this during my whole degree. I was excited that I was finally centering me and people like me. During this search, I discovered Ari Banias’ Anybody. The work itself was a centering. Looking into more of Banias’ work, I discovered he was also working through the incredible whiteness and cisgenderness of the literary world.
Ari Banias’ work grounds itself in the queer and trans point of view, looking to other trans people to ground his ideas, to think through his poems, to center his thoughts. His work is an engagement with trans work, his piece “The Room In Spite Of” a concrete example of this engagement, and a helpful companion piece to his collection of poetry, Anybody. He explains in “The Room In Spite Of”: “I’m saying now, though the saying alone can’t prevent it, I don’t want to be the one smiling in the brochure while my friends are wiped out. Don’t pave the road that leads to a fake entrance using my body, using any of my names.” Banias refuses to assimilate into the white patriarchy. But what does this refusal mean? As a white-passing person, I’m constantly battling this forced assimilation. Banias’ work explores what it means to deny joining a majority that doesn’t account for those most oppressed. His poems in Anybody also attempts to work past “the saying alone”, using language to enter into the doing. In a world of constant injustice, one where direct action is becoming increasingly important, where is the space for the written word? What’s the importance of poetry? “Are we listening/to poems?” his speaker in “The Feeling” asks, “Not much” (41). But is this true?
Banias’ poetry doesn’t assume that making space creates a unified we. In “A Room in Spite Of”, he quotes Juliana Huxtable, saying: “Like that time I realized that for us by us was a message more seductive to them than it ever was to us. Not that us is even us at this point.” Banias addresses Huxtable’s concerns and continues moving through this idea in his poem “Some Kind of We,” his speaker explaining “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.” (4) His work constantly questions what it means to be or to belong. What are the things that make us the same? What are the things that make us different? Anybody addresses the importance of both sameness and difference, as one can’t, and shouldn’t exist without the other. In line with this addressing of difference, Banias’ work also engages with race in a way not often seen by white writers. His speaker explains ““and other times just the assumption my beloved is white,/the idea of white people loving each other at all/when in whiteness together we steamroll what matters,/that we a fake universal I’ve wanted to wreck/by how I live, if we look at it hard enough/would we actually still love each other? I feel sick. (56)” While “Enough” addresses the guilty feelings many white people have, not pretending those feelings don’t exist, it also addresses direct action and false ideas of the universal. A friend of mine explains to me during a POC writing workshop that whiteness assumes neutrality and universality and that often not addressing this pretends it doesn’t exist. In this context, the saying becomes important to the doing. One cannot start working against white supremacy without first coming to terms with one’s positionality within white supremacy. Banias’ speaker explains, “this a necessary widening of scope./This rest stop in question brims with white people/of which I am yet another, and therefore am I to feel safe or at home” (56). Despite being trans, the speaker is protected by whiteness, and by addressing this privilege, they can start working against white supremacy. The poem does the work of addressing other white people, and asking: Why are you complacent? Why do you feel safe?
Similarly, Anybody is a constant re-working of ideas, addressing the fact that identity isn’t constant or rigid, and that it should be questioned. The poem “Handshake” points out the constructs of gender, the trans body often questioning what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” or neither. The speaker asks “How much is learned how much is given how much taken on voluntarily?” (46) and the lack of punctuation between the questions and the rushed sentences reveals the overwhelming pressure these questions create for people trying to form their identity and self. And yet, these choices, while the speaker “would prefer to misbehave,” inevitably change due to the point of view of others, the speaker explaining “but at any moment I’m wherever someone else puts me – /then change my mind. I’ll pick a side/when I need to/handshake: OK; backslap-chortle; no way” (47). The sentiment reminds me of the instance in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts where she says, addressing her partner Harry, “When making your butch-buddy film, By Hook or By Crook, you and your co writer, Silas Howard, decided that the butch characters would call each other “he” and “him,” but in the outer world of the grocery stores and authority figures, people would call them “she” and “her.” The point wasn’t that if the outer world were schooled appropriately re: the character’s pronouns, everything would be right as rain. Because if the outsiders called the characters “he,” it would be a different kind of he. Words change depending on who speaks them” (8). Barias’ re-working of pronouns functions in the way Nelson describes, constantly changing depending on who is seeing and who is being seen. When Banias’ speaker says, “we still march on directionless, / used by pronouns & all the livelong / language still drags us through it’s shitty plaza,/do “you” have a highway phobia like “I” do,” (17) he is trying to articulate the ridiculousness and malleability of language in a similar way to Nelson. His speaker also questions the centering of the “you” and the “I” and what it means to exist as a “you” or an “I”. Or what it means to exist as a “he” or a “she” or a “they”. What makes one an “I”? What centers the “you” as other? What do these words truly mean in the construction of the physical world? These ideas land firmly in a concrete world, the questioning of Banias’ poems accessible through the images that hold them, the “neighbour” and the “front yard” and the “badly pruned bush” (17). Banias connects these questions to the subjects they are inquiring about, placing them in the physical world they so difficulty live in. What does it mean when words aren’t real and tangible like “the steepest hill in maybe all of Oakland California”(17)? His work is trying to question the importance of language and it’s failures, declaring “fuck equality, predicated on sameness / why not by now insist on a complex star cluster / a fuck of will and willingness and imagination, our most unwieldy / crap?” (18) When I read work like Anybody, I can see the value in saying as this saying is attempting to make space for a complex star cluster. When white people say things, we more often than not listen to them. Anybody is aware of this. Anybody is using the power of saying, “though the saying alone can’t prevent it, I don’t want to be the one smiling in the brochure while my friends are wiped out”. Anybody is doing the work.
Eli Lynch-El Bechelany is a mixed queer living in Montreal. They are published on Metatron’s OMËGA blog, in Alien She Zine and upcoming in THEM. They were one of the organizers of the Off the Page 2016 literary festival and they are part of the Spectra Journal Collective, a queer literary arts journal.