Exile on a Grid Road

The Bull Calf, January 2017

A conspicuously Saskatchewanian title graces the cover of Shelley Bank’s first published collection of poems; a “grid road” is a uniquely Canadian term referring to roads laid out in a grid pattern from the original survey of that area, often remaining unpaved or gravelled, and Saskatchewan boasts the largest network of these in the country. Some readers might think that the title marks this volume as especially provincial (excuse the pun) in scope, and for some poems they would be right. “Agribation” is a reference to the Canadian Western Agribation, and “Watching Woman” is an interpretation of Heather Benning’s eponymous statue in Marysburg, Saskatchewan. But as much as Banks wears her province of residence on her sleeve, most of these poems would seem relatable to many different kinds of readers. Most entries in this collection deal with fighting illness, low-key encounters with nature, life at the office or other everyday subjects that might come up in conversation. This collection contains nothing very surprising or out of the ordinary, but it is not dull. Banks has an unmistakable talent for creating relevant verse that is easy to identify with.

The majority of poems Exile on a Grid Road are ‘sister poems’ linked together as a continuation of a certain thought or subject. Pages 13-14, 15-16, 21-27, 37-46, 49-50, 51-55 and 57-60 are each a distinct series, but only “Kiss of Knives” is demarcated as such. “Agribation” begins the first set of sister poems and describes an urbanite’s visit to Canada’s biggest livestock show. The speaker almost guiltily admits, “I have no farm … I’m city-deep, no secret / country core” (13) while she longingly peruses this cultural statement of rural Canadian identity. Tension is built here but not resolved until the next poem, “Exile on a Grid Road”, finishes the thought:

Would I belong if I could tell
milk vetches from alfalfa?”
Could I stay longer
with every plant named? (14)

Banks chose her titular poem well. Here she expresses the very specific feeling of muted guilt over not properly belonging to a place, as if the speaker’s lack of investment in the land itself is an accusation they must answer. Banks can relate to this herself as she was born in the Rockies, grew up in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and lived in several provinces before settling in Saskatchewan. She uses her wealth of travel experience in a series of poems beginning with “The Mission Field” that describes the speaker’s reluctant flight from British Columbia as a child to Kingston, Jamaica where she feels distinctly out of place as “a child / of toques and tamaracks, / not curry, chutney” and “tangerines” (58), finally shedding her unease in “Green Mangos”, where she dives wholeheartedly into the pleasures of this new land.

It is tempting to read these poems as autobiographical since they are so clearly drawn from Banks’s life experiences, but she has previously blogged about the confusion some of her readers have with the “eye” of the writer and the “I” of the writer. She draws from her real and imagined experiences, and does not define which is which in this collection: for instance, her father did die as described in “March Flight,” but her mother is not the fictional one from “Lemons and Leather.”

“Kiss of Knives” is a series of poems based on Banks’s own experience surviving breast cancer. The series contains the most shocking verses in this collection, from an uncomfortable recreation of the experience of a mammogram to the psychological toll the experience takes on the children of a cancer patient:

Her son is one.
He’s heard
her yell and cry more
than he’s ever heard her
say that she loves him. (39)

This is Banks at her bravest: how often does anyone call attention to subtle selfishness that can come from spending too much time being ill? Illness is the most recurrent concept in this collection, and Banks parallels these poems with a series on her cat’s diagnosis of oral cancer—but these are appropriately lighter in tone. “Diagnosis” is actually quite funny in spite of itself, but as the reality of the pet’s doom sinks in so does the gravity of the real loss of companionship that comes with its death.

On the other hand, some of the most memorable verses in this collection belong to the light-hearted series I call the ‘office poems.’ These open on a promising note with “They Say I’ve Settled in. Well…” which is too funny and relevant for me not to send to my mother (a former civil servant). The best of these is “The Excuses She Makes”—which frequently appears in reviews of this collection—and is told from the perspective of a jealous and rightly annoyed employee who has to cover for a slacking co-worker who leaves early and takes too many trips, and is ostensibly only still employed as eye candy. Bear in mind this is after layoffs (therefore adding another thick layer of injustice), but ultimately “the excuses she makes / for living” (27) are working out for her better than the narrator’s excuse for staying so late and working so hard. Banks’s voice is at its most enjoyable here and I imagine the office poems are her ones that are most widely shared from friend to friend and colleague to colleague.

Of course, not everything Exile on a Grid Road is so sharable, and Banks’s occasional imprecision of language results in some less enjoyable poems. “Tattered Wings” may or may not be about a flying insect, though nothing comes together to form a coherent image or feeling. “Grasshopper Summer” is full of incomplete thoughts like, “I kept his letters” (34) but without further context this leaves the reader with a sense of unfulfilled melodrama. This problem afflicts a few good poems as well: “Prairie Icon” captures an avian encounter but since there are insufficient details to actually identify the bird the poem ends up being more ironic than iconic. Banks’s short verse usually struggles most: “Listening to Thunder” and “Red” are just not powerful enough to justify the attention their short length draws to these few words. Conversely, her longer verse is some of her best: “Too Dry to Wash Betrayal from our Skin” and “March Flight” feel vibrant and complete, and it is a shame Banks did not write in this style more often.

Banks’s strength lies in her ability to be relatable. Her voice is best when it’s grounded, conversational, or confessional because she evidently knows how to capture people’s everyday feelings and fears. “Raw Desire” exemplifies her ability to illuminate a nuanced feeling to which her readership will likely respond emphathetically. Have you ever had a chance encounter with a splendid animal, only to have the experience “reduced / to just another checklist photo / lost” (19)? For me it was a black bear; for the speaker of this poem, it was a Great Horned Owl. These experiences should have been prized memories, but the magpie reflex to record it (and the failure to do so) turns this gift of nature into a perceived loss, “and the memory of the great / owl’s soaring grace / flounders in desire” (19). Banks fills the pages of Exile on a Grid Road with this kind of relevant content, and in doing so she has created an especially accessible collection of verse.

— David R. Pitt, The Bull Calf

Canadian Literature, August 4, 2017

Mountain ash, snow geese, milk vetch, CN freights—all are seen from Shelley Banks’ exile on a grid road, a titular image that immediately calls to mind the lattice-like framework of Canada’s prairie thoroughfares. The book is Banks’ first full collection—though, as she notes in the acknowledgements, several of the poems have been published individually—and a full collection it is. Stylistically and formally varied (Banks has included, for example, a found poem as well as several haiku, a prose poem, and plenty of free verse) and rich with sensory language, Exile on a Grid Road is a remarkable first publication.

Loosely divisible into three groups of poems, Exile begins with a set of prairie-inspired pieces, conjuring up images of rural Saskatchewan that are felt, smelled, and heard as well as seen. Readers will hear as well as picture, for example, the “demolition thunder” from the hooves of “cinnamon-soft / Belgians” in “Agribition”; feel the unforgiving cold of prairie wilderness in works like “Carcass Walk,” “Prairie Icon,” and “Raw Desire”; and smell the damp and dank rising up from “backyard sinks” stricken with “two weeks of rain” in “Undone.” Banks’ collection, though, offers more than just vivid descriptions of prairie life and landscapes. Indeed, it exhibits a keen understanding of the mundanities, tragedies, and intermittent wonders of, well, existence that will resonate with most readers—prairie-dwellers or no. What I have deemed the author’s prairie poems, themselves profound reflections on being as well as place, are juxtaposed with a series of poems that reflect on the tedium of pedestrian living—strikes, layoffs, sick days—and the unexpected, but all too common, tragedies that upset it—cancer, heartbreak, death. Exile, in this sense, is not just spatial; it is emotional and existential as well.

Exile takes on a slightly different hue in the book’s third batch of poems, as Banks reflects on her experience growing up an outsider—as the daughter of Canadian missionaries in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. In this last part of the collection, bittersweet reminiscences of an “immigrant” child (“Vacant Lot, Kingston, Jamaica”) in pieces like “The Mission Field,” “Vacant Lot,” and “Green Mangoes” are reminders that the pain of exile may ultimately give way to new and delightfully different horizons—perspective, it seems, is the light at the end of Banks’ particular grid road.

In Last Stop, Lonesome Town, fellow literary newcomer Tara Azzopardi reflects on similar themes (exile, tedium, tragedy, and combinations thereof), but relieves the seemingly intractable gloom of life’s hardships in her own way—with a unique blend of macabre humour, oddball allusions, and biting satire. Unlike Banks’ collection, there is, it seems, no rhyme or reason to the order of the poems in this book; it is a jumble of viewpoints, subjects, styles, and time periods. This chaos, however, is undoubtedly part of the book’s charm. The poems jump from early twentieth-century Brazil (“Brazil, 1908”), to Albania (“Albania, 1925”), to Alcatraz in the 1960s (“Alcatraz, 1962”), and touch on subjects as familiar as “The Great Depression,” as relatable as the adolescent insecurity we never quite grow out of (“A Date with Casper”), and as unconventional and unexpected as the tacit dos and don’ts of country music (“Nashville Rules”). Even the length of each poem varies dramatically: the shortest, “October, 1939,” is a mere two lines, while the longest, “The Ballad of Zerelda James,” is several pages.

Azzopardi, though, is a trustworthy and entertaining tour guide, expertly leading her readers through a carnivalesque world that would give Alice in Wonderland a run for her money. And, indeed, as in Wonderland, in Last Stop nothing is quite as it seems. Nearly every poem employs some kind of thematic upset or reversal—be it the “most eligible” doctor in “The Bachelor” who “can tango with an ostrich” and “gamble with an alligator,” but whose sexual exploits (“in a lampshade / in a dumb-waiter / at a grand ball”) make him decidedly less eligible by the lyric’s end; or the decidedly unsexy “Sex Club” that appears on the neighbouring page, replete with an iconic “red room” that is, in this case, haunted by the “phony / oh oh ohs” of Santa Claus.

A former clerk in a costume shop, contract archaeologist, and construction worker, and current artist, musician, and poet, Azzopardi is nothing if not skilled in the craft of compilation. In the case of this collection, the back cover has got it exactly right—Azzopardi has made a “quirky and beautiful vaudevillian debut.”

— Natalie Boldt, Canadian Literature

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,

to just another checklist photo

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


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