||A Review of: Bonfires
by John Lofranco
"In the direction of little towns," the opening poem of
Chris Banks's debut collection Bonfires, gave me shivers. I admit
to being nostalgic about the Eastern Ontario landscape he recreates
in the book, but this bias, I think, also insulates me from any
false praise. I am particularly sensitive to any attempt to call
up Purdy's "country north of Belleville," and not for
poetic reasons (Purdy I can take or leave), but because I spent my
childhood and adolescent summers there. Banks piles image upon
image, creating a landscape where "everything disassembles
itself/into some new clarity." Cows become crows become grain
silos which turn into first lovers, and every stretch of the gravel
road is equal parts joy and sorrow, "as if going anywhere/is
to leave something behind." Banks's book has its faults, but
for a poet on the rise, Banks shows a remarkable maturity.
The first section of Bonfires, "The Country of our Exile"
is about a lost urbanite. "Arguments" is a break-up poem,
but in Banks's description of an argument between a couple, where
"the walls [resonate]/with sounds of our shared lungs/moving
a cavern of air," we get the sense that at stake in the "one
final argument" is the rejection of country life for the city.
Indeed, in the next poem, "Stumbling Home", we find the
speaker lost as if dumped, feeling "drunk and rudderless,"
on city streets. There are echoes of his rural youth in
"Thirty-One" where "in [his] backyard, birds/sing
in my cherry tree like a choir of exiles."
Banks gets caught up in his own ennui in "Form Letters",
a kind of "what did I do today" poem. There is an unexpected
turn as the speaker hands the mailman a poem, instead of a letter,
but the tone of this poem is flat, and the metaphors, though
interesting, are disconnected: "Leaves hang sigil-like/from
iron branches" is robbed of any relative meaning next to
"Model homes/stand incommunicado across the street."
Perhaps this is what Banks intends: the suburbs rob the poet of his
will to live; but the last lines of this poem are too clich to make
us believe that the poet is being ironic. If he is going for irony,
he has overdone it: "Miracles do happen, make your dreams/come
true, free yourself today, celebrate summer/claim your prize, be
happy" [italics, inexplicably, in the original].
Another poem in which Banks seems to lose the energy generated from
the tension between urban and rural is "What we encounter".
While interesting from a zoological point of view, and linguistically
sound, this benign encounter between frog and dog has nothing at
stake and has no additional meaning. Banks is at his best when he
complicates the mood with a mix of mundaneness and nostalgia.
"Domestic Wages" does just that, while still including
the speaker's dog, and instead of a frog, snails. The poet succeeds
here by jumping from dead snails in a saucer of beer, "dregs
[his] dog didn't want," to "notions of infinity,"
then back to traffic jams and cubical work, and finally, "into
the arms of new loves." It is this type of everyday contemplation,
contrasting a natural-rural if you will-aesthetic with the more
urban images of "the drive to work, the queue at the coffee
shop" that recalls the country idyll evoked in the preceding
In "Signs of leaving" simplicity is called for. Banks
brings his two competing worlds together, as "Canada geese/are
flying south" and "brown trout/are running up river/like
bayonets/stabbing against/the stream," while "young
couples/wake up all over town/no longer in love." The end of
the poem prefigures the second section of the book:
awakening in us
that animal need to
leave it all behind-
and begin again.
And so the poet heads off to China, the North Korean Demilitarised
Zone and, in the middle of "Book of Changes", Prague. The
section of the book is typical in terms of travel poetry, but what
Banks does with sweet, subtle efficacy is lead the reader through
his own scattered thoughts, so that while we're exposed to his
disorientation, we know exactly where we are. The last four lines
in "Long Road to China: read
knowing I choose with purpose
to drive off into a mystery
beyond restraint or nagging doubt,
wanting only to arrive.
The next poem, "Our Lady of the Cornfields" has an epigraph
from Al Purdy, and takes place on the Trans-Canada highway between
Cornwall and Quebec City. Voila: the poet has arrived home. Well,
almost. There is a desperation in the penultimate, and the final
poem of the section, reserved for the last leg of a long journey,
when the familiar only serves to remind the traveller that he or
she is not quite home. In "When you have already come so
far", we have the moon "racing the 401," "tiny
rivulets of silence/underpinning every moment, pulling you in and
out/of yourself," and "each dialled FM station/luring you
back/to a high school, or a university, or a "childhood/filled
with Neil Diamond songs/at a cottage no longer your own."
The third section, ironically titled "Was this what you came
for?" continues Banks's subtle journey. He moves back and forth
between home now and home then, especially in the series "My
father wanted to be a cowboy". In this series, he works imagery
and character nostalgically in an honest but guarded sketch of his
father without being sentimental. He doesn't hit us over the head
with the obvious question: "have I become my father?" but
the idea is there, hinted at in the roving, nomadic life of a cowboy
that reminds us, quietly, of the journey from which the poet-speaker
has just returned.
It is only in the last section, appropriately titled "What's
left to wonder about", that one of the common faults of a first
book appears. He cobbles together what seem to be random thoughts,
still on the theme of memory and self-discovery, but left out of
the arching narrative of the rest of the book. Nonetheless, "Age
is a recurring dream" is a suitable ending for this haunting
collection of poems:
The boy died: he left at dusk
with the last butterflies of summer.
A young man now sleeps in the gilded cage
of his bones. In his dream,
the boy returns-an old man
carrying his poverty and his shoes.
And moving very slowly, like one
who has lived a long time,
he pulls his shadow across the fields,
the moon's last remains.
A first book often feels rushed. The poet wants to get his or her
work out there, and so sacrifices sober reflection for momentum and
energy. This doesn't appear to be the case with Chris Banks.