Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Winter Cranes, by Chris Banks

I’ve been dying to read some Chris Banks for a while now, as several very smart people—including Adam Getty and Bob Spree—have recommended his poetry to me over the years. Winter Cranes, Banks’s 2011 collection with ECW, seemed to be as good a place to start as any. The back-cover copy reminds us that, “In Asian folklore cranes symbolize longevity, immortality, and good fortune.” It’s curious that this blurb excludes the word wisdom from the list, which is one of the chief associations of cranes in Asia, especially in Chinese and Korean mythology.

I say curious because much of what Banks is wrestling with here seems to be the slippery, tenuous nature of wisdom—how our knowledge and certitude can be undone by emotions, by the vicissitudes of reality and our own self doubts. This was certainly evident in the collection’s lovely and cadence-rich title poem, where he writes about the wish of Truth being what we want it to be, rather than what it is. He tells us:

My wife saw birds pass over the frozen pond
and wondered aloud if they were cranes,
desiring proof of their corporeal existence
to mark them as either a tangible reality
or a fantasy born of some lack in our lives
“I want them to be cranes,” my wife said again,
a little more forcefully this time, so her words
were now a truth or a sacrament of experience
fully grasped …

There is a mutual desire between the two characters in this poem to see the world in the same way, to share with one another an immutable reality, or at least the same delusion that holds a ring of truth. This, one could argue, is the very definition of wisdom.

There is evidence of these preoccupations throughout Winter Cranes. In the poem “David,” the narrator talks of neighbours who glimpse an autistic man living next door engaging in his own un-parse-able inner world, only to turn their gazes away before a clearer truth can reveal itself to them. In “Graffiti,” Banks walks us through the often-inscrutable world of vandalism-as-art, writing of “street calligraphy” and the “longhand scrawl of syllables” that stay just beyond the boundaries of our understanding. In these and other poems, full wisdom remains one step ahead of us, a version of reality floating in a world just outside our reach.

I have to admit that there were times when I struggled with some of Banks’s approaches. There are a number of poems in this collection that have what I would call close-ended finishes—lines that reach a bit too much for a clear-cut epiphany or easy reversal, rather than an open-ended moment that allows the reader to do most of the work himself. I’m thinking of poems like “Desert,” which manages to be mysterious without holding much mystery; or “The Thief,” which builds to a rather pedestrian resolution. These issues may stem from a larger problem I found in Winter Cranes—that is, its overreliance on narrative in many of these pieces. Reading this collection reminded me of a pearl of wisdom that Catherine Owen shared in her essay collection Catalysts: “A willingness to experiment with form is also paramount in increasing the ‘energy potential’ of one’s poems. Words and forms are the poet’s primary tools. Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from … a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else.” I often wished that Banks would subjugate his own narrative impulse a bit better, and allow his talent for ellipses and subtlety to shine through more.

Still, it’s clear that Banks writes with a very sharp eye, and loads of generosity. He understands what propels a reader through a poem, the percussive energy that captures our imagination. While some of these poems may be bogged down by their over-dependence on narrative, most of them have no trouble at all taking flight.

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