Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Poetry by the bay


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Anybody by Ari Banias; W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95

In the Volcano's Mouth by Miriam Bird Greenberg; Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, $15.95

Two outstanding poetry collections have recently been published by Bay Area authors. Both have enjoyed fellowships from prestigious creative enclaves such as the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. These are first collections for both Ari Banias and Miriam Bird Greenberg, and each represents outstanding work.

In Anybody, a debut both assured and affecting, Berkeley writer Banias' multi-tonal verse explores identity, gender, race, relationships, and an inventory of his residence, where "what I literally/have the most of in my apartment/more than plants/more than forks and spoons and knives combined/or chairs or jars or pens or socks/is plastic bags." He ruminates on the nature of gender in an atmospheric piece embracing a personal transformation, "as once I was a slutty teenage girl they now call Sir."

Atmosphere permeates other poems, like the surgery room in a work about "the possibility of my body" prepped for a double mastectomy. Fire Island is the lush and lewd home to those who "prowl daily/in only a towel," and the Midwest and its flatness and endless fields "the actual size of loneliness/emptied of people."

Some pieces are unconventional and thought-provoking. "Gay Bars" is comprised solely of the names of queer watering holes in the continental U.S., "some of which are no longer in operation." A verse about a melting snowman behind a schoolyard fence equates the collapsed snow creation to the "stupid human cultural mess" of family. That kind of "mess" is skewered in a searing piece on the remarriage of his father to a woman "young enough to be my older sister."

The title of prizewinning poet Miriam Bird Greenberg's nuanced inaugural collection In the Volcano's Mouth references a line in her opening piece, a tightly-woven remembrance of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the Cyprus Freeway collapse, where "Men in the Acorn Projects/remembered pulling strangers trapped in their cars to safety./Brother, one told me he'd said/we can be afraid of each other again tomorrow."

Drawn from the author's daring hitchhiking, bicycling, and freight train-hopping excursions across North America, and from the fringe population she encountered through her travels, this poetry is rooted in the locales and experiences of a seasoned and highly observant traveler.

"Ophidia," written for and about three friends with whom Greenberg cycled over the continental divide, is grounded in a sweltering place where "the day meted/out its veil of heat, shimmering/over the blacktop, singing/in the rails of train tracks/that ran gleaming beside us in the sun."

A poem featuring tumbleweeds and the parch of the Central Valley is based on an excursion from "Roseville, California, to Pixley on the Union Pacific Line." Several pieces feature men: dusty men, abusive men, men just barely surviving on the margins. But her collection is very much about the female experience on the road. In "Soda Lake," three women emerge from hot springs into a "land garlanded with travelers, seekers,/solitary van-dwelling veterans of foreign wars/waiting for their next life." Atmospheric and mystical, Greenberg's debut is wanderlust poetry dedicated to the armchair vagabond in all of us.

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