by Chris Banks
ISBN: 0889711968

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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 poems.
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:

Subtle signatures
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.

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