Exile on a Grid Road

saskatoon starphoenix / regina leader-post, november 28, 2015

Saskatoon's Thistledown Press has just released its 12th New Leaf Editions Series of first books for emerging writers (all titles $12.95). This year three of those writers are from Saskatchewan, the first being Shelley Banks who, after a widely itinerant early life, now lives in Regina.

Banks's Exile on a Grid Road begins in mild catastrophe and doesn't much let up from there. Her intriguing first poem, High Wire, mourns a newly-found shadow spirit a woman realizes she lost 80 years ago. Fear pervades the next few poems, threats of poison and fire in I Can't Hold to the Present and personal betrayal and global warming in Snow Geese. There's loneliness in Agribition, and by the strong title poem, the perpetual exile is willing to make a deal: "Would I belong if I could tell/ milk vetches from alfalfa?/ Could I stay longer/ with every plant named?"

The same feeling emerges in the aptly titled Raw Desire. After the deaths and floods of the previous few poems, the desire in this poem turns to greed, to "capture" a photographic image of a Great Horned Owl, not content merely to have seen the magnificent bird.

In the next batch of poems Banks speaks for all those workers, cogs in a huge bureaucracy, who feel alone and unappreciated, how "stress/ made me/ small," the strike, the layoffs and its dead bird image, ending with The Excuses She Makes. Here's a lovely little poem about covering for a lazy co-worker who, nonetheless, has the guts to live her life, "Who never regrets/ the excuses she makes/ for living." 

Yes, the collection is not all stress and gloom. Banks, even as she heads into a nine-part series on breast cancer, and after that the death of a beloved house cat, maintains a willed buoyancy that finds relief from the one-damn-thing-after-another nature of life in small sensual pleasures: Spring, green mangoes, and, above all, praise, for "this hot bath ... (f)or the garlic and/ for oranges." Small things, like these spare poems, can mean a great deal in a life that could be bleak, if the writer allowed it.

— Bill Robertson

sPG book reviews, november 3, 2015

Robins, grackles, gulls, airport snow geese, a Great Horned Owl, iconic chick-a-dees that eat peanuts from the palm of a hand, pigeons, Ruby-throated hummingbirds in bougainvillea. Birds flutter in and out of Exile on a Grid Road by longtime Regina writer and photographer Shelley Banks. In her inaugural poetry collection, the multi-genre scribe demonstrates that she’s also paid attention to dogs and cats, insects, rain, the myriad plants (“natives and exotics”) that grow alongside gravel roads, and, of course, to the human heart.

Why is this all important? Because life whizzes by, and most of us don’t take the time to stop and consider how a grasshopper resembles a twig on a patio gate, or how-on a grave or anywhere else in a certain season-“lumps of clay jut hrough the snow”. This is the very stuff of life; it counterbalances the tedium of work-a-day lives, the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy, the shadows that deaths leave behind. It’s good and necessary to celebrate what goes on beneath the glossy surface of life, and that’s what poets like Banks do so well.

The finely-tuned poems in this book are mostly short, and Banks has employed various styles: free verse, quatrains, couplets, haiku, a prose poem, a pantoum, concrete poetry, and even a found poem, “Swordfish,” “from text describing complex patterns in number puzzles from an online Sudoku Guide.” This diversity might signal that some of these pieces were written while the writer was in a poetry class, or perhaps she just enjoys the freedom of experimentation. The variety is aesthetically appealing, as is the range in subject matter.

“Greed” is among the poet’s many considerations. An octogenarian is greedy for “dregs of wine, the last peanut skins,” and Banks examines the greediness of the photographer who’s compelled to “capture” the image of an owl and satisfy her “need not to believeut prove this presence”. She continues:

and the memory of the great
owl’s soaring grace
flounders in desire,

reduced
to just another checklist photo
lost.

Banks is competent in the mechanics of poetry. Note that in the above excerpt (from “Raw Desire”) she’s placed “reduced” and “lost” on their own. This gives these words more weight, so they reverberate and meaning is heightened. Great care’s also taken with line breaks in this collection: end-line words “swing” backward and forward, giving lines double meaning and impact. Phrases like “the clouds slatesubmarines patrolling the horizon” and “a galaxy of farms” demonstrate originality and grace.

The “bird-stained window” in “The Strike Drags On” is, for this reader, an ideal metaphor for this accomplished collection. The poet is an acute observer (the window), who records and shares personal observations and experiences in poems that sometimes whisper, sometimes sing, and sometimes howl. Yes, there are “stains,” and that’s the reality of anyone’s flight through this world, but there is also joy, and praise .. for the moments, for oranges, for snow melt, and “one lightfar offalong the wingtip”.

These are poems to let steep, and read again.

— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks