The Politics of Syntax and Poetry Beyond the Border

The Politics of Syntax and Poetry Beyond the Border

The Politics of Syntax and Poetry Beyond the Border

A conversation with Ari Banias about his new collection A Symmetry, a book that interrogates everything from whiteness to the meaning of community.


Some men are women too / the way a mountain is land and a harbor is land and a parking lot,”Ari Banias writes in “Oracle,” the opening poem in his new collection, A Symmetry. In Banias’s poems, binary oppositions—of men and women, land and sea, us and them—buckle, as the very idea of borders is made porous. Attending to the entanglements between the material and the metaphorical, Banias interrogates the terms of relation mapped by dominant systems and structures that underpin global capitalist orders. “What is the ‘we’ whiteness requires?” Banias’s poems encourage us to ask. What does “elsewhere” mean when immigration severs the material “here” of daily life from the imaginative “here” of home? How might transness point us toward other ways of being?

Banias’s first book, Anybody (2016)—a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award—probes the vexed meanings of embodiment at the untidy intersection of personal experience and social meaning. Published earlier this fall, A Symmetry moves through layered geographies—bodies, imaginations, and other landscapes—exploring the brutal fictions of borders and the real scars they leave, the ways in which they script encounters, and the wilder ways we find each other, still.

I talked to Banias about the seductions of nationalism, the unwieldiness of pronouns, divesting from whiteness, and the social meanings of syntax.

—Claire Schwartz

Claire Schwartz: A Symmetry feels to me like a book of the outdoors. Even as it’s attentive to the uneven distribution of violence and other atmospheric pressures, the book feels located in a shared weather. Could you speak to your engagement with weather, environment, the outdoors?

Ari Banias: I like the phrase “shared weather” and how it gets at accumulations larger than us. In A Symmetry, as in the world, the conditions of that weather, of the environment in all senses of that word, are not only conditions of the present—they’re an accumulation of historical events that predate us and that continue to proliferate in and through our surroundings, and in and through us as living beings.

At the moment I live on the West Coast, where wildfires are raging yet again, scattering particulate matter and smoke across thousands of miles. These particles are literal, physical manifestations of settler colonialism and extractive capitalism. We breathe this weather into our bodies; it sickens us to varying degrees, often along predictable lines of class and race; we’re inside it, and simultaneously it’s inside each of us.

CS: In her book In the Wake, which attends to representations of Black life in the contexts accumulated following the transatlantic slave trade, the scholar Christina Sharpe describes weather as “the totality of our environments.” Sharpe is talking in particular about anti-Blackness as a “total climate.” Are there ways that you’re thinking about climate—totalizing structures of uneven subjection—in A Symmetry that feel useful to name up front?

AB: Sharpe’s notion of climate has given me ways to think about the pervasiveness of white nationalism and capitalism as weathers that surround and enter us. While finishing the book, I was working through questions of nationalism, specifically in relation to Greece—Greece as an idea and ideal; Greece as ancestral; Greece as a museum, as constructed nation-state, as flashpoint for economic crisis, as site of violent EU border policy writ large. I think about how idealizations of Greece as the so-called “birthplace of Western democracy” are braided into justifications for the creation and maintenance of the US, for all manner of neocolonial and military interventions, and of European imperialism. And about how that translates into the current forms of material and ideological cruelty inflicted on migrants and displaced persons at the borders in Greece, in the Mediterranean more generally, and of course here in the US.

I was steeped early on, both through family stories and the Greek Orthodox Church, in fairly uncritical registers of ethnic pride and longing (and belonging). I’m not invulnerable to the seductions of ancestral nostalgia. I’ve felt proud to learn of my familial connections to communism and leftist resistance in Greece. But I always want to stay alert to how those affiliations are constructed and mobilized. For example, underpinning many stories of resistance to fascism or right-wing conservatism is a construct of “Greekness” as something essential—and, too, the notion of Greece as a nation-state to be heroically defended. Nationalism shores up that desire to feel a connection to place, to reckon with ancestral traumas—wars, displacements, occupations—in service of purist conceptions of that land, its histories, and the political control of its future. Nationalisms delimit who “belongs” in a place or “doesn’t,” and what constitutes a “legitimate” political, historical, or cultural claim to belonging. What, then, does it mean to be of a place? To love that place? How and to whom does this love extend?

CS: The myth of white supremacy is supported by the fiction that the white gaze is natural everywhere. By contrast, in your poems, I’m made so aware of being a body in place—of having a gaze—and often it’s discomfort that animates that awareness. How do you think about the relationship between race, place, and looking in your poems?

AB: There’s a line in one poem that’s a self-interruption: “—! who made you think that?” To be a white person attempting to move against white supremacy, which shows up in how I’ve been taught to see the world, means constant reexamination of my positionality and, at a bare minimum, the willingness to not be comfortable. So what am I seeing? How am I seeing it through the distortions of whiteness—and through other lenses? What am I not seeing? Can I see what I’m not seeing? Maybe not. But can I see that I’m not seeing? Can I write into that?

The new poems are far less interested in conclusiveness and more invested in sustaining a quality of attention: I’m going to continue looking and to attend to what appears, occurs, or doesn’t, rather than straining to impose meaning or reciprocity where it may not be. Also, I think of a holding pattern, patience and waiting. As far as opacity, the “I” of A Symmetry certainly isn’t onstage in a spotlight announcing itself. But it isn’t disembodied either.

CS: One way you probe the meaning of the “I” in your work is through an engagement with various “we”s. There’s this layered interrogation of how love and family—those particularly bound, calcified iterations of the “we”—are also forms of acute danger. In the poem “Enough” in Anybody, a straight couple comes into a queer bar and starts making out, which makes the queer bar less fully available to queer people. The poem moves from there to consider the meanings of white kinship, and the white speaker is differently implicated. Could you talk about the ways that whiteness and queerness and/or transness intersect in your work?

AB: Whiteness as an embodied experience and as an ideological system relies on a me-first “I.” And that “I” is absorbed into whiteness’s “we” and the built-in, creepy promise of protection that “we” implies. My insistence on an ambivalent, unstable self in my poems, sometimes expressed as a “we,” is a refusal of expectations around gender allegiance and gender coherence, and it’s also a refusal of the primacy of “I” as a singular, closed-off entity. The “we” of the “I” that transness makes—transness being, for me thus far, a lived experience of multiple affiliations—has taught me that no “we” is inevitable.

I don’t mean to suggest white people can just willingly decide to step out of being white at the material, lived dimension. Though, materially, we should all be paying reparations. Rather, the “we” of whiteness is intentional. It was designed to constantly put me, to put anyone white, in a position to choose it over and over and to not notice the choosing. Simultaneously, we’re promised that people bound by shared marginalized identity markers will automatically share politics or a notion of justice—but look, the CIA has LGBTQ-friendly and diversity-oriented recruitment campaigns! You are a gay fascist! We are not on the same side. If no collective identity is inevitable, then it follows that we can choose to build collectivities along other lines. I’m drawn to collectivities that can be forged through working alongside one another in some form of mutual care and liberation, at whatever scale. It’s not required that we share identities to do that.

CS: There isn’t just the “we” of shared identity in A Symmetry, but a more intimate one—the “we” of two people—as well. What significance does that smaller relation hold in the collection?

AB: Do you know June Jordan’s poem “Study #1”? It begins: “Let me be / very / very / very / very / very / specific.” In that poem, the speaker lists and rails against a number of large-scale political and economic violences. Amidst all of them, what brings the speaker back to themselves—the thing that grounds the poem—is an eyelash that’s fallen above the beloved’s lip. And the idea that an eyelash is enough to counterbalance structural violence… It’s not enough in the world, but it’s enough in the poem. What is the eyelash? It’s almost nothing. It’s a detail. And it is, in its placement, intimacy itself—because you have to be very close to see an eyelash. It orients us to what is present, embodied, connective, and frighteningly minute. The “I” and the “you,” who both are and are not everything.

CS: A Symmetry is also attuned to questions of syntax and grammar as structures of relation. I’m thinking, for example, about the last two lines of “The Happy”: “A yellow butterfly that has no interest in me. / I have no interest in kings.” As the syntax was repeated to forge an order of relation against the hierarchies that capitalism prescribes, the structure itself was thrown up for grabs.

AB: I mean, syntax is always about ascribing hierarchy, right? Syntax is a matter of who/what comes first, of what entity or force acts or is acted upon, and so on. When I play inside the constraints of this order, I’m playing so as to expose machinations that hum beneath familiar cadences, the under-rhythms and the ideas they carry. I want the arrangement to come under scrutiny. I love when syntaxes fold, repeat, contradict, and undo themselves to reveal their and our hypocrisies. I love the experience, while writing, of stumbling onto coded meanings in habitual language patterns and then defamiliarizing or destabilizing them. And I’m most interested in: What becomes possible after that?

In the poem “Pronoun Study,” the essential syntax remains static, but the pronouns relentlessly shift. As they do, power, transaction, and culpability seem to shift too. The poem won’t let you assume fixed relationships between subjects, and it leaves the question of complicity an open one.

CS: In “Oracle,” you foreground this challenge to ingrained representational logics, writing, “Refuse the difference between sameness and difference.” That line feels related to the title. Is there a through line there for you?

AB: Oh, definitely. The title A Symmetry contains its own refusal, being that it’s readable in at least two ways, and these readings are contradictory, paradoxical, both symmetry and asymmetry at once. It can’t be both, but it is both.

To draw from a related moment in that poem—to say, for example, “Here is land and here is water and they’re two discrete things” is to disregard that there’s land beneath the water, and there’s water beneath the land. Keeping them conceptually separated is part and parcel of the mechanisms of colonization, which depend on separating people from one another, themselves, their own histories and practices, and other living beings. I remain passionate about refusing binary categories and thinking—land/water, same/different—even, and maybe especially, if I don’t know what that will look like. Writing is, at least, ground to practice on. Translation, too, a necessarily imperfect practice, has been instructive for me here—being that, side by side, any two texts or languages or experiences are particular, distinct, and can never be precisely symmetrical. In the process of reaching—which is one way I like to think of translation—when I let go of equivalence as an aim, texts can touch, overlap, light each other up, open anew. To reach for something is ultimately to place trust in the possibility of connection: to reach (as movement) in order to reach (as contact). Symmetry’s really not involved in that.

Since we’re talking about symmetry, I can’t not mention the liberal fantasy and rhetoric of symmetrical relations, of the so-called level playing field—the idea that such a thing is, first, possible, and then that it’s what we should want. I find the worship of symmetry, like the worship of perfection, frightening, a sort of precursor to fascism. Part of the danger of trying to attain that symmetry is of course that it flattens and ignores all these other ways of being and relating that have nothing to do with evenness or sameness. To manufacture this, who and what is cropped out, worn down, compressed, suppressed, straightened, omitted? Even in what’s thought of as nature, symmetry is never perfect.

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