“Simplicity” is a loaded term; its mere invocation could be considered a kind of immodesty, or at least a foreshadowing of the presence of its sister, complexity, lurking around the corner. The word “simple” is in both the epigraph and opening line of Chris Banks’s third collection, a volume of poems set on highways, in deserts, in towns where crabapple trees grow in yards and cars slow down for children in the street. The simple problem the collection confronts is time passing: footprints are erased, the years are getting on, and men and women are looking hard at what parts of the past to take, to leave, and to shore against the ruins. Banks never flinches from this problem. And this is where things get complicated.
Banks writes complex, nuanced lines of narrative verse: when something catches fire, or the wind starts blowing, we get multiple clauses and twigs that snap just so at the ends of the lines. He’s a maestro with the poetry of physical objects, able to stack just the right amount of cordwood, or to jimmy open the basement window just enough to achieve the desired tonal effect. In addition, he’s adept at handling both the ghosts of artists past – be it Keats or Reinhardt, who serve as explicit subjects of poems, and the voices of Merwin, Hass, or Levine, which he has thoroughly digested.
There are two prose poems in the middle of the collection, “Field Studies” and “The Garden Maze.” The former finds the speaker arguing with a young man in a field about things like prosody and pure intention, until the man falls to the ground with a slide-rule and measures the blades of grass. The latter finds a speaker pushing through a crowd in a maze, becoming utterly lost. He eventually stumbles upon a disembodied version of himself, who offers little in the way of consolation. Both these poems are skilfully turned. They are also messy and vulnerable in a way that the rest of the collection – sure-footed and lovely as it may be – isn’t. If each of Banks’s poems were a day we could look back upon, these two would make me most nostalgic.