“Introduction to Ari Banias’ Anybody” for TEFLON (adapted from an introduction at McNally Jackson Books, New York, NY in Fall 2016)
Before I introduce Ari Banias to Greek-speaking readers, it seems important to disclose that he is one of my closest friends. It must be acknowledged I have loved Ari a long time, and I am going to fail to introduce these poems to you with any attempt at objectivity.
What I can do is give you context for the significance of the event of Ari’s first book, Anybody. It belongs to a powerful wave of recent books of American lyric poetry that brilliantly reconfigure this intensely personal and hermetic art form so that it can enter into direct ethical and sociopolitical engagement without sacrificing the immediacy and portability of lyric language. Claudia Rankine’s 2014 Citizen, which textually reckons the constant assaults of American racism, comes to mind. Also Solmaz Sharif’s unapologetically political 2016 Look, which explodes the US Department of Defense’s dictionary into poems of deep grief and anger. And many other books. Together they amount to a refusal to accept the ideologically and institutionally violent American political and social status quo and its attendant enabling language. They are the antidote to a poetry that too often, even in 2016, witlessly, endlessly, nauseatingly reinscribes patriarchal and phobic white supremacist structures, then garlands itself with laurels.
Ari’s poetry cannot be neatly or succinctly summed up. This is not so much a consequence of his wild, wide-ranging ambition, nor his expansive vision, as it is the mark of an intelligence, a set of strategies that are specific to being transgender and also transcultural. In “Exquisite Corpse:”
I had a nightgown once, which
became a jellyfish
so in order to wear it I had to go down:
to punch myself into the form
the content required.
In “The Room in Spite Of,” a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Ari writes: “I… want to imagine spaces that aren’t bounded, and to which we aren’t bound as those reduced versions of ourselves a room is temporarily curious about and so has sanctioned.” This “room,” which appears in several poems, functions as a means of thinking about thinking. It is an image by which to discuss gender, sexuality, transness, and the politics of inclusion and exclusion— and how we might intelligently evade that which desires us to be either inside, or outside, in order to facilitate our easy legibility and commodification.
Even as these poems confront crushing political ideologies, they also take care to ask, how does neoliberalism actually make me feel? What does it mean? What could it mean to be alive, to love, to make art, or to simply blow up a balloon in times that are at once hateful but also revelatory? The last time I saw Ari read in NYC, I asked him, do you notice how people behave at the bar after your readings? Like they’ve been churned? Ground down as we are by systems that demand our self-negation, we can almost be ourselves in the presence of these poems. Briefly, we are suddenly the people we thought we were, or would be – if we dare to presume a we. As for me, these poems are emotional on my behalf when I cannot find my way back into feeling, and they friend me into the more rigorous thinking I am too exhausted or cowardly to do on my own. I am less ignorant for them. I need these poetries, the ones that help me see through eyes that “refuse to privilege one way of seeing,” to borrow a phrase from Eduardo Corral.
And they smile. They refuse to laugh at bad jokes that harm people. Astrologically they are passionate Leos, the kind who have no less than three birthday parties to maximize the collective joyous basking. Somehow Ari’s poems are facing front, acknowledging the fact of their being in a room they may have long feared they have no right to be in, or from which they cannot escape, and whose terms they either understand not at all or in excruciating detail, or both. Versed in powerful discourses, they employ them to uncover, not to subjugate. They are courageous, intense, and angry. “I don’t want to be the one smiling in the brochure while my friends are wiped out,” Ari writes. They will sit you down. They are someplace to where you can drag your broken life and trust you will find care and wisdom. They are a profound kindness in a punitive time, in which kindness can increasingly be understood as a political act.
Often they handle with exquisite delicacy. There is a dreaming quality in this work, a dreaming toward things long hoped-for, but also a dreaming toward the unanticipated. That there should be things unanticipated, freedoms we cannot even yet imagine, this is where everything is leading: “to imagine possibility, to dwell in the gaps, to live out permeability, to wildly rearrange, to shut it down— this is our trans magic, what gets me, what gets me through.” These poems dream toward world survival, not away from it into indulgent apocalyptic thinking. They often do this with a breathless generosity, humility, and inquisitiveness.
I’ll leave this by sharing the end of a poem titled “Horizontal:”
where do you see yourself going I mean long from now
where will you want to have been bound? There are islands
in the Chesapeake underwater today where last month
people sat on couches watching TV. Where the sky ends
the water begins and where in that should we?