My friend Dave Okum animated this little video of my poem "All Night Arcade" which will be the title of my next book. Hope you enjoy it!
Monday, December 14, 2015
I feel like I’m walking across a thin glass bridge
and everyone moving past me
I feel like some trapped child
is wailing inside a sound-proof room
between my stomach and my lungs
It is 1974 again—
I have forgotten my address,
and the day camp has left me to go swimming
so I wander the school parking lot alone
I imagine this is what it feels like to be dead
Somebody comes back for me 45 minutes later
but by then I have tasted it
The dread of loneliness
and it is too late
The darkness standing sentinel
at the edges of the tree’s shadows
begins to smile—
Show its teeth.
By Chris Banks
Posted by Chris Banks at 3:54 PM
Monday, September 15, 2014
My father told me a story about when he was a young policeman working in Milton, ON. He was called to the scene of a suicide. A veteran of the First World War had stood in the middle of night saluting on railroad tracks letting a train run him down. It is a harrowing image, one that stills haunts me.
As a young person, I found it hard to believe anyone could be in that much pain, or feel so abused by life’s ups and downs, he or she would would choose to end it in such a dramatic fashion.
Then I became a teenager and the first signs of depression began to manifest themselves in my own life. I remember being bullied in grade 7 and 8 to the point I began to stammer in front of my peers. I was kicked and punched daily, had my property stolen, every conceivable obscenity flung at me. The worst was when the young bully wiped his nose on my shirt. His mother was a teacher at my school so I felt no one would listen to me, and therefore I was on my own.
Such taunting drove me deep inside myself where I cultivated inner resources of the imagination which would serve me later on in life when I actually decided to become a poet, but it also made me deeply distrustful of my surroundings.
At the time, I did not think of myself as depressed. Just a victim of moving to a small Northern town where few kids liked me. It was later in my twenties as an undergrad that I suffered my first major depressive episode as an adult. I remember having suicidal thoughts for the first time. I could not sleep or eat. I lost ten pounds. I recovered slowly over a few years, but I eventually graduated with honours and moved to Montreal where my mental health stabilized.
Since that time, I have suffered at least three personal “doozies” as Jim Harrison once said of his own depressive episodes, the last one persisting for three years and only now am I starting to feel better. Depression is a hard thing to talk about not simply because of the shame or feelings of personal weakness it engenders, but because of the fear it might actually come back. Something about invoking one’s demons. Here be monsters.
If writing is elation, intoxication, depression is its opposite. Suffocation. A feeling like there is a slow leak, and all the air is leaving the world. It is also crippling exhaustion, panic and anxiety, which make it painful, especially for loved ones, to interact with the depressed person.
I am not entirely sure of the relationship between depression, and the art of poetry except to say for me it is profound. David Biespiel has recently written,
“The poet’s journey involves a series of transformations because to write a poem is, above all to change your life. And, no less important, to change someone else’s life. A poem is an offering. A poem is a common wealth. Because each poem contains insight, the wisdom you reveal in your poems can renew the community. When you present your poems to the world, you are saying to readers that you have discovered something. You are saying that you are ready to participate in the shared human experience…"
For the depressive who feels most often apart from the world and other people, stuck on invisible railroad tracks with their neuroses bearing down on them, it is vitally important to understand experience is malleable. A poem is transformative. It offers a way to connect and share with other human beings when no other way seems possible.
Why I have depression—bad genes, a nasty drug my mother took when she was pregnant with me, childhood trauma—hardly seems important. The truth is chronic major depression has been a constant in my adult life ruining my relationships with people I care most about, and no amount of exercise, medications or therapy has made it go away for good. That poetry and the imagination can help me forget this burden awhile, or even at times to feel like a whole person is a spiritual fact. It allows me to keep going.
Posted by Chris Banks at 7:25 AM
Saturday, October 12, 2013
In the Boston Review, David Gorin in his essay "Negative Review: The Claudius App" goes negative on critical take-downs suggesting they are no more honest or free of careerism than so-called positive reviews. Here is an excerpt:
"To my mind, the notion that negative reviews are a dialectical antidote to the vague praise and careerist back-patting often found in poetry reviews is founded on a mistake. There is no good reason to think that negative reviews are ipso facto any more honest, more intelligent, freer of strategy, instrumentality, or profit-motive than positive reviews. Negative is not the same as critical. The negative reviewer is shrewd enough to moneyball the marketplace: he understands that in an economy rife with praise-inflation, vitriol can code as honesty, and ridicule may seem refreshing because it is so rare. His operation risks devolving into spectacle. The idea that negative reviews should be more “honest” or “refreshing” than positive reviews is symptomatic of the fantasy that there might be a place where the dynamics of economy and careerism are suspended, and the voice of truth can pour forth undiluted by ulterior motives. The main problem with negative reviews is that they’re too similar to positive reviews. The poetry criticism I admire most spends less time praising or blaming—which often amounts to leveraging the reviewer’s cultural capital and verbal virtuosity to muscle readers into assimilating that reviewer’s taste—and more time describing and contextualizing with intelligence and gusto. Of course, no reviewer could ever remove his taste or politics from his descriptions; the very choice of an object for attention is a function of such things. But I think we’d all learn a lot more about what’s happening in poetry if reviewers leaned less heavily on overt statements of aesthetic judgment, positive or negative, and more on close analysis."
- David Gorin, "Negative Review: The Claudius App"
Posted by Chris Banks at 11:31 AM
Friday, October 11, 2013
Thanksgiving is already upon us! I have a few readings coming up over the next week.
I will be reading Wed. Oct. 16, 7:30 pm, at the Landon Branch of the London Public Library, 167 Wortley Rd as part of the Poetry London Reading Series.
The following day Thurs. Oct. 17, I am heading to Hamilton to give readings from 4:40-5:30 pm at Redeemer University College and later that night 7:30-9:00 pm at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 1060 King Street West for the Hamilton Poetry Society.
Posted by Chris Banks at 6:02 PM
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Dusk Til Dawn
You imagine the moon filling a bedroom window
as the towering screen of a drive-in movie theatre
high above a winter field strewn with melt-water.
Soon cars prowl past the ticket booth’s closed sign.
An unlighted snack bar hunched in snow and rain
gathers a crowd. The moth-stutter of faint images
flicker from a projector filled with stopped clocks.
Someone has already begun to lay aside his clothes
in a borrowed car. Someone’s white bare shoulder
is sending a boy’s desire up in flames, burning him.
Someone feels branded by delight. Even on a night
as cold, as ordinary as this evening, somewhere it is
the summer of 1985 and Back to the Future is playing.
Somewhere people stagger in-between rows of cars,
drinking beer, laughing heartily, suspecting nobody
will ever grow old, or expire, or be forgotten again.
Many are wrong for it is already tomorrow’s music
leaking out of FM radios, speaker poles like crosses
marking the graves of teens who came before them,
until someone finds himself locked out of some car,
twenty years older, and an adolescent girl, with skin
more white than the moon’s pale winter, long dead
from a car crash. What happened two decades ago.
Someone wishes he could go back to another time
to loiter under a different moon, in another century,
but already there is a fight in the parking lot. Already
police are gathering at the entrance waiting for dawn
to come, for people to finally get tired and go home,
while someone drunk yells come on!, holds up his fists
unaware the invisible projectionist who is smoking
absentmindedly, dusting ashes off one last cigarette,
stares out his little window knowing how it all ends.
By Chris Banks
Posted by Chris Banks at 2:56 PM
Monday, May 6, 2013
Bachinsky’s book begins with the lines “I can see now that I once was quite feral. / Getting older was my education in becoming civilized” from the poem “You Know What Readers Like”. This is an apt description for how a reader feels when reading her poems for although the point of view is decidedly personal, the “voice” in her poems displays a powerful self-awareness suspicious of where it finds itself. Bachinsky’s book is rife with images of urban sprawl and superficiality—googling blondes, Telly Savalas, Nails salons, Venice Beach—all of which are treated by the poet as memento moris of a western civilization in decline. A popular culture that has become a plastic church.
This cocktail of high and low culture might be dismissed by others as mere ‘cool-hunting’, Bachinsky angling for a kind of bohemian sophistication, except for the fact that the wilderness intrudes in many of the poems. There is a picture postcard-worthy lake that is actually only three feet deep and choked with ragweed. A mountain rises in the distance above a passing train full of commuters. The speaker in another poem rides her thorough-bred horse through an empty subdivision where there are “no trees, just a razed cow field / where developers built and we moved in.” This poem ends with the lines, “my big dark horse, waiting / for me to come on back / outside” which implies nature on the ragged fringes, living outside society’s frame, is a place of spiritual renewal.
Take, for example, her poem “The Spider’s Alphabet” which appears in its entirety below:
The Spider’s Alphabet
Once in rural Japan my good friend Allan joined a fascinated throng
in watching a white spider meander across a market square,
a white spider whose body was fat as a man’s hand whose slender
legs tested the earth as a woman’s might test the surface of a lake
mid-May—then it moseyed. And when I first moved from the city
to the woods outside Vancouver, I evicted two from my laundry
room, an old married couple, bodies each a good inch long, grey-brown.
They were pissed. They lived without a web. They were hunters’
the whole length of their basement window replete with corpses:
fat blackflies, millipedes. A real nice set-up. I screamed!
But all summer in the press room, I have watched a thin brown thing spin
webs behind the type cases. And I have thought of E.B. White,
his Charlotte, and what I would do with my Charlotte after she,
feeling safe, spun her pale yellow sac near the small window
that opens onto your derelict English garden. I watched the sac hatch
and for weeks afterwards I found spiderlings among the liagatures.
We worked together. Me, dissing type while the little ones wove
through the alphabet. Now—the wolves who stalk through
my house at night?—they keep my tabby entertained.
In the day, I leave my windows open, and my doors. Yet how
pest-free my house remains! Some nights I dream of eight eyes and wake
to unexpected cash. Strange. This fall when I move back to
the city with its silverfish and exorbitant rent, I think I will summon
spiders. It is best to live with them. To let them into the house.
By Liz Bachinsky
There is so much to love in this poem — the white spider and the fascinated Japanese throng, the move between the city and the woods, the allusion to E.B. White’s Charlotte's Web — all of which implies a connection to nature is important because it resets or awakens the imagination. This is certainly how I take the meaning of the last lines where the speaker says, “Strange. This fall when I move back to / the city with its silver fish and exorbitant rent, I think I will summon / spiders. It is best to live with them. To let them into the house.”
What Bachinsky places squarely in her cross-hairs in The Hottest Summer in Recorded History is not only urban-planning run amok but the gentrification of consciousness. Just when readers find themselves getting too comfortable in a poem, out come the bull-whips and the tiny wooden armadillos, the hobbled horses and the jimmied keyholes, the plastic paparazzi playsets and the zombie finger puppets.
Elizabeth Bachinsky uses her bursting lyricism and wide-ranging eye to seek the borders between the feral, i.e. the wild, and a recycled culture so obsessed with its own past it is unable to create any new meaning.
Sara Peters also wants to make her readers uncomfortable in her new book 1996, but she does this more directly, employing an overtly surrealist approach. ”As a teenager, there are several ways to get your parents’ attention. / Only one of these ways is to set things on fire with your mind.” So begins Sara Peters’ poem “Mary Ellen Spook” and it quickly sets her readers on pins and needles for her poems work against easy observation.
Like Bachinsky, Peters creates tension between things familiar and fabulous, leaving her readers feeling unfixed and detached. There is a dream-like quality to many of her poems. In “Bionic”, a twenty-two year old brother believes he is bionic and is looking after a senile mother whom he dresses in a t-shirt that reads, “I kill everything I fuck // I fuck everything I kill.” In “Your Life as Lucy Maud Montgomery”, a menacing Ann of Green Gables makes an appearance carrying a butterfly knife. In “Camden 14”, a boy sets himself on fire in the middle of a neighborhood.
Reading her poem “Cryptid” below, it becomes clear how Peters employs surreal imagery to create a dream-like atmosphere, both transgressive and distorted, in order to shake up her readers.
You saw her once, at Margaree Harbour,
when you were a three-year-old boy called Oscar.
While you staggered over the sand,
slippery with SPF 50,
your parents humped on the beach towel,
to Lou Reed singing “Sweet Jane.”
Lipless, lidless, five slits in her throat,
her rosy larynx furled in and out.
You laughed at her boa: seaweed, rusted forks.
She tore up a starfish, swallowed its points.
You offered, as truce, some Sun-Maid raisins.
She spread out, to amuse you, all forty fingers.
Finding you gone, your father sprinted over the sand
(long-legged, in one Birkenstock)
While your mother stayed right there!, sat on her heels,
gasping into a brown paper bag.
Later, your parents noticed the salt taste of your skin,
called you their potato chip.
Your mother combed sand from your hair,
your father found beach grass in your bed.
Now they sleep to the sound of rogue waves crashing. Dreaming,
they pick their way through dying jellyfish
to find you waiting (not for them) behind a rock,
content amid the iridescent quivering.
By Sara Peters
Immediately, readers are swept into this dream-like scene with the use of the second-person pronoun transforming them into a three year old boy named Oscar. The parents dry-humping on a beach towel, the eerie lilting guitar and dead-pan bluesy voice of Lou Reed singing “Sweet Jane”, the sea-creature with her boa of seaweed and rusted forks, all of these images evoke the poem’s chimerical fantasy, which reminds me here a little of a poem by Larry Levis “Inventing the Toucan”.
It is as if Peters, distrustful of mimicry or imitation of any kind, fears her images will fade into a poem’s background, becoming mere wallpaper, so awakens or ignites her audience’s attention by allowing her poems to participate in the fantastical and the surreal.
Sara Peters’ large-minded speculative vision is not interested in a carbon copy world of appearances, but in the “throbbing interior” of her imagination.
Stanley Plumly has said, “Resemblances are our masks for meaning” but both Bachinsky and Peters never let their readers get too comfortable with such masks. Please pick up Elizabeth Bachinsky’s The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, published by Nightwood Editions, and Sara Peters’ 1996, published by House of Anansi Press, at your local bookstore.
Posted by Chris Banks at 9:34 AM