Exile on a Grid Road by Shelley Banks
by David R. Pitt
Exile on a Grid Road. Thistledown Press, 2015.
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.
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.