Berkeley Talks transcript: East Bay poet Ari Banias reads from book, ‘Anybody,’ plus new work at Lunch Poems

Geoffrey O’Brien: Good afternoon. I’m Geoffrey O’Brien and I’m the director of Lunch Poems. Really happy to have local poet Ari Banias here today. Come back next month. It’s always the first Thursdays of the month in March for Tarfia Faizullah, and then in April, Ben Lerner will be here to round us out.

We’re going to talk for a second about Ari’s book, Anybody, with that deep specificity. The book is littered with barriers. There are fences and there are strangers’ keys snapped off in car locks, there are things that do the work of, as the poet would say, dividing the living from the living, but there are also lots of assaults on those barriers or forays beyond those barriers or disillusions of them.

A chain-link fence that you have to see through might be fraying, and I think that those dissolves of barriers dividing the living from the living have to do with a kind of non-idealizing Whitmanian streak in Ari. The poet and critic Allen Grossman talked about the two barriers that poetry most tries to contend with being death and the problem of other people’s minds, and I don’t think Ari thinks we can ever quite breach that barrier, but it’s work asymptotically aspiring to get as close to another as one can.

That’s why I think one other kind of crucial figure in the book is that of the pronoun, that of anybody-ness, of that space of substitution that we can all pass through such that we are almost meeting. We could say that the limits between people meet inside of the pronouns that we share and that differentiate us and Anybody is a perfect example of the indefinite pronoun where we can convene in the same way that we are convening right now to hear Ari speak. Thank you and welcome.

Ari Banias: Thanks so much for being here, and thank you, Geoffrey, for that beautiful introduction and for inviting me to read. I also wanna thank Giovanni Singleton, and for everyone who makes possible this series. I’m going to read a mixture of work from the book and some newer work. I’m gonna start with some newer work and then circle backwards. I spent a summer living in Los Angeles once. This is sort of about that.

The Happy

In a room more chicken coop than a room, I rent a fan that feels on my face like sound. Low traffic from San Fernando, named for a king who became a city, a valley, a saint. We are meant to repeat his name. Instead, I say prickly pear, a cactus which spreads its many paddled hands into the space around itself. No pears.

I call mom to ask what the latest posterity measures mean. Some ants on the wall make their way from one unseeable point to another. The banks have closed. An acquaintance posts tourism, the best way to be an ally to Greece, as if in each tourist’s pleasure bloomed a charity. Mules clabber down the stone paths loaded with grapes to make next year’s wine if the tourists come back next year, and we hope they will.

I say we, but I’m closer to they, living temporarily in a neighborhood named for the happy who were who exactly? I grow a little stiff with, a little lean with, a little faint with, a little worn with seeming. I must need to conquer my mind. The rose is dead because of drought, because whoever lives here cares enough to let their roses die. I must need to conquer the notion anything needs conquering. Something in me can’t tell what belongs.

The ants, for whom anything is a street. What sounded like opening was eucalyptus branches dragging themselves along the tin roof. A yellow butterfly that has no interest in me. I have no interest in kings.

Continuity. Now we’re in the Bay Area. And by the way, I don’t have anything against L.A., just to be clear.

Continuity

It isn’t fog past the far hills so much as haze the trees are paper cutouts in relation to. A strip of black paper scissored into a stiff, exact outline, stationed at the ridge, the blue muted behind it, and the whole momentarily like an old print you’re looking at, but you could just as well be a peasant in it, small, hunched, neat bundle at your back making your way up the mountain.

The earth’s soft new green on the hillside mean it has been raining the unmoving ships out in the bay like stickers pressed to lightweight board dipped in silver. How did you find yourself here? No elsewhere, no inch unframed. You idiot. The mountain blotted with benign forms of cow set into its terraces who chew and shit, square assed with enormous faces staring out. It isn’t you they’re looking at.

Tautology

I had a body and it was good until you gave it meaning. Meaning ruined pleasure and created it, so ruined creates and pleasure’s meaning, I didn’t ask for, just lived through. A gate that shrieked each time it opened, and on the street, we passed one another, flicking our eyes at, then away from the bodies made boring by the small clamors that drown out the one large clamor. Something in the tree is arguing with the tree. No, that’s just the tree.

We Don’t Drive to the Tree, But We Talk About the Sea

Rain laid into my grimy window pain at an angle. A cocky guy against a car waiting, waiting to watch water magnify the screen’s perfect squares, then extinguish like lights in an office building after hours when cleaning crews come in and leave.

From my desk, I study it where I take my little peasant meal, poached egg, brown bread, white cheese, grapefruit juice, brief and dense. A peasant meal, though the bread was $7, the eggs too, and purchased while in the luxury of a bad mood. “No peasants write poems,” some asshole says, and that asshole is me, a transsexual in jeans in a bad mood. If one notion follows another, the sense I make will break itself against itself.

Round white petals on the street I think are shattered glass. I steer around while they flutter, then go still. A baby carrot in a bag of baby carrots, nuzzled and shaved down into this wet shape, why? So it could be forgotten, so it wouldn’t have to be itself. Who wants to read about flower pedals? Who wants to read about all the theory you’ve read? This blessed juice is sour and real.

I’d like to read something a little longer. It’s in sections. They’re not numbered, but I’ll just pause between the sections, so just hear that asterisk that’s there on the page. And this poem sort of moves between California, the Bay Area, and Greece.

Qualm

Iridescent green flies on the dog shit scatter when I walk by. I’ve never seen flies so vivid. Gorgeous, these shit flies. Someone sits on a park bench with head in hands. A plot of ornamental grasses bends in resigned unison. Helicopters overhead, how they move like spirits with no conscience.

Patience, rage, and being told be patient. The birds with orange heads and dust-colored bodies bob on the power lines. The poet explains a patient is one who suffers. Beneath the underpass, a chair overturned in the fenced in weeds, toward which a misplaced tenderness arises.

Each night, see says, and most mornings refugees arrive, then ship off to Athens. Why would they wanna stay? There’s nothing here.

Fog descended from the Pacific. I took a bath with my biggest rock, a deity, ancient, severe, rolling around in the bottom of the tub.

Nothing, a bookstore, a lotto place run by cousins, two bakeries, one university, donated used baby clothes well-meaningly folded and stacked, one detention center in the capital, road sign with the capital’s distance in kilometers spray painted fuck.

Where one bright aperture in the cloud has closed up, inner twos, and shoes, and life vests on the shore. My mother lives above this beach. She watches them.

After being asked for money by five separate people, an office supply truck passes, gives something back across it. I give $5 to CC. I have $2 to someone earlier, but he seemed disappointed. I sit on a sunny curb in the parking lot feeling useless, like a teenager. “Huh, who is American?” my mother asks bitterly. One of us looks down at the other. Palm tree in the distance with the hair of a rocker dude.

My mother said fight. She said they used to call her the little Spaniola. Photographs of water like case studies. How far away from yourself would you say you get? When I swim the first time, I cannot call it pleasure.

Them here feels violent to me.

Three kids in the chilly light of a convenience store’s back entrance visible from the highway between one California and another. One squats, looking at a phone. Two lean and smoke, slouch of interminable suburbia, interminable crap jobs at 15, a flash, momentary as toward the city we continue, as we do.

Four old paint drips on the windowpane I look at, not through. Four old punctuation marks a nearing helicopter cuts across. I refuse to detail the humiliations that keep me up at night. I am pulling a blanket over my head or I’m elated by 30 seconds of rain.

At the laundromat, churchlike, fastidiously polite, I pair socks at the high counter, plastic, marbled to resembled marble, black, white and blue. A woman claims a whole row of washers, spacing five Hefty trash bags at even intervals, looking tired. Here are delicates. I sit down, she gets up. A stranger I want to convey kindness to. The day opens like a compact, mirror on one side, powder on the other.

A Symmetry

The magnolia before it blooms stands bare as a statue from antiquity or a shaved puss. It flowers first, then greens.

A pissed off dyke climbs into the branches to be held by an ancient indifference and both were me, yet it’s possible I am a short, bald man. But I am neither a big-bosomed, wide-hipped, pretty, nor a short bald man. An antelope, an elk, a deer on this rug, a twiggy tree, the genderless squat figure, solo, blurry, hands on hips that repeats. A plush life of winter and summer colors of flowers alongside tight, checkered bands edging the broad, green center where we look for each other, a woods, a pasture, a park, a yard, a median of grass set in a concrete mold situated within a pay lot. How it feels to stand outside a house at night whose lights are on, whose lights are on.

This poem takes place in Paris.

Curriculum

View with a cathedral in it. Fountain with the face of a merman about to spit water through chipped lower lip, but holding it in. Another postcard rock. Another stall at the market displaying African wax prints on tote bags, dresses, broad skirts sold by a white man. I copy a list of French colonies and their dates into a blank, white notebook. On a bed of ice, haphazard piles of silver-gray fish. “The eyes should be clear,” said my mother. I don’t wanna look at the eye.

What’s visible from inside a Brutalist building? Institutional green, linoleum tile circa 1961 of a sturdy kind, the year my mother immigrates. What’s visible alongside a nearly motionless canal, alongside a river? Brownish-green, predictable, romantic like a few weeks’ fling that soon splits in two directions. Irrepressible bodies of water surrounded by buildings from centuries prior whose filigrees gather soot as excess definition. Wreathed in trash, something classical and repulsive endures.

The exterior of a famous museum, once a fortress, is power washed behind large scaffolds fitted with tarps screen printed to mimic the exterior of the famous museum. One vertical band of newly washed portion bare and ridiculous beside the car-crammed thoroughfare. Piss against trees and walls and the seams where walls meet trickles and stinks like a moat. In a concavity where the likeness of another wealthy person once stood, pigeons sit. The oxidized face of a statue of some goddess streaked in it.

In the gay club, the dancer showers in front of us live behind glass, coyly not revealing his dick while screens project him digitized in slight distortion on either side of him. He snaps a small white towel in front of himself and keeps it up against the glass with his own weight. Under this dance floor, across from the bathrooms, a red room cordoned off. It doesn’t have to be there to be there. At the market’s end, bruised tomatoes, nectarines so soft they’re left for free.

I’ll read one more short one, and then I’ll read form the book a little bit.

Oracle

I was wrong. It isn’t suffering that’s easy, pleasure that’s difficult. How is it I’ve been living this way, holding my piss?

A mirror scuffed by a distant talk, secretly livid, worried what the dead would think. Someone greets with only the top half of her head, brown, curly hair behind a computer monitor. Today, for one second, a woman is anyone who has a body and can’t forget it. The tight loops of the office carpet start to unhook. Some men are women too the way a mountain is land, and a harbor is land, and a parking lot. Refuse the difference between sameness and difference.

The ocean is on fire. Green flame on the neck of a god who is a pile of rocks, not apologizing for themselves.

So, I’ll switch gears a little bit.

On Pockets

So, this is for my friend, Michael.

I told you to write a poem about pockets, but you already wrote a paper on pockets in Dickens, and I have read almost no Dickens to be honest, but pockets, what a staple of intimate transport both private and exposed, functional and decorative. Some faux ones even printed on, others in women’s clothes hold nearly nothing intrigue me deeply. They have so many ways of being, prominent or discreet or altogether hidden, buttoned, snapped, zippered, flapped, but then also those on fine suit jackets one has to slit the first time with a blade, the care of that and how sexual it is, but this isn’t what’s important about pockets.

Pockets are dreams of negative space and possibilities, potential, secret inside, outside places, a pocket of thinking, a pocket of resistance. Theoretical and cultural writings on pockets exist, but as with Dickens, I neglect them. When it comes to pockets, I prefer to think on my own. I still, at times, imagine my thoughts in a small enclosure. It helps me think better when actually, I have a mind full of holes; they breathe. There’s something sweet and forlorn about a pocket breached, a torn pocket, a pocket that can’t hold what’s important, its one job, a keeper. And through the compromised place, things escape down a pant leg or into the lining of a coat. If it’s cold out, one can feel a warm coin pass along the leg against the skin, maybe hear metal strike sidewalk, but not always, not always coins. Maybe keys. If dropped on carpet or in a loud place, not heard or not a whole, but a pickpocket. Wind, carelessness, somewhere crowded when going through their contents in a hurry. More and more of mine have holes as I get older I’m too lazy to repair or notice only when wearing this parka, these pants, and picture when I get home the needle and thread in the drawer, and then get home where my pockets no longer exist. Their relevance declines, I forget.

Today I saw an old friend in a strange yet handsome dark wool coat that struck me. I couldn’t say why. It’s eerie beauty, and I told him so. He said, “There are no pockets. It’s a prisoner’s coat.”

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, to hunker like a boulder under immeasurable pressure, as when minerals are transformed into their reverse, as when a nightgown is worn over the tuxedo for years. Pissing on a jellyfish sting is said to make one feel normal or royal.

When we were together in the house by the sea, there was still a sea. Before being set adrift, tuxedo and nightgown lay slain ashore where the shore inched up and up, and if lapels say a word, then burn her down to a pair of molten cuff links they piss on till normal.

It is expected he kiss her and become a nightgown. She wears him in order to punch him down until he sinks, until it’s said he is painless as a house or some other comparable, soft-bodied animal that drifts.

Bouquet

Today, I build flowers out of concepts in order to speak to you sincerely. Today you want nothing because wanting comes too close to feeling, and though a sad, old person who combs their silver hair all afternoon in a high window curses you with great acuity, you, being anyone in a suit, a suit being whatever you insulate yourself with so you don’t hear that voice up there calling you out, you keep going as grim fleets of semis keep going, shuttling dry goods across the continent. In their fervent rumble lives a hope to be getting paid soon. I get it. Even last night’s cream roses still in their cellophane and chucked on a downtown sidewalk by their recipient have been called out. These are the conditions of our times, you say, stuffing ourselves with what’s greenish, filming quickly in a garden whose foliage is nearly realistic.

Once we faced each other. Now the unused filaments grow limp in us each day. What huge thing catapults through you when alone on the edge of your bed is sincerity or a need to allow its mineral clarity to bloom out your eyes, but you’d rather it didn’t? Theory of feeling will sling feeling back to you so you can just think it. I offer these compact shapes of affection and sadness, which the words affection and sadness do not convey. Cancer’s sincere, shit is, indigestion, resentment is sincere, sweat, dogs, mint, rust. Certain friendships are utterly sincere and genitals are sincere, though a flower is indifferent.

I’m gonna close with this poem.

Volley

In the absence of sunlight, in the absence of a genuine river, I blew air into a balloon. I gave my breath over to its empty shape. I filled and pinched, and no matter how fast I tied it off, how tight and swift the air, my own, drained out, and here I was again, and here you were watching. No, imagining. So, think what this balloon might represent if we passed it back and forth and took turns adding our breath what the quick tying might and our marveling at its lovely shape like an egg, but also a teardrop, our hands on it, our fingerprints darkening its surface, all powdery and matte at first with a bare sheen.

Think of the balloon sent into a crowd at a party, how that crowd might move to keep it in the air, protective and playful, almost flirting with itself. A crowd with light volleys will send and resend a balloon upwards, high above their heads until it drifts down and asks to be touched by them again, and with such innocent gestures, they do, though eventually they too will tire of this. I can’t just say innocent, I know that, but I’m going to say innocent, innocent as a balloon not meant to last. Think of it handed back and forth between us.

Thank you.

Geoffrey O’Brien: Thank you so much, Ari. That was beautiful. The good folks of Moe’s are here with some copies of Ari’s book if you’d like to look at it, and I believe Ari will sign for you as well and chat with you even into the bargain. Come back next month for Tarfia Faizullah. Thank you.