Simina Banu, POP, published April 2020 by Coach House Books (image courtesy the publisher)

Poetry thrives in the slippage between a word’s multiple meanings. This is central to Canadian poet Simina Banu’s first full-length collection, POP (Coach House Books). The book is divided into five sections, each loosely based on a different meaning or association of the titular word, from soda to music to bright colors to quick movements. Banu plays with the relationship between words and images, reveling in the ambiguity of poetry comics — a form that uses lines of poetry within the visual structure of a comic book or graphic novel. Words become images, in the manner of concrete poetry, and images burst with words, as in the best image-text combinations.

The sections are connected by the metanarrative of a decaying romantic relationship; through her language and images Banu captures the way intimacy can be both desirable and suffocating. “I fantasize about annihilating / all the theories you admire / with logic, art, or gardening” she writes in “A Discourse,” from the “Greatest Hits” section, “but it doesn’t matter. / This is a love story.”

“Hold Me Tight,” from the same section, is just one line: “To get our points across, we skip words towards each other. They sink, unheard.” The text appears above a simplified graph of skipping stones — curving “V” lines across the page. In this slim volume, Banu dismantles the conventional structure of the poem by using plain language and unmetered lines with variable stanzas and line breaks. In doing so, she also presents the dismantling of her relationship. “I wasn’t a swimmer / but you insisted on confessionalism,” she admits in “Pool.” “Our poem diagnosed / me into a fugue.” Through her poetry, Banu illustrates her own slow breaking under the eyes of her partner.

Excerpt from POP by Simina Banu, published April 2020 by Coach House Books (excerpted with permission of the publisher)

Her poems are a mix of youthful displays of intellectualism (“You break the silence to mention that my clothes are rags. Therefore, Derrida uses the term ‘the textual paradigm of consensus’ to denote not discourse, but subdiscourse”) and texting or internet speech, both likely relatable to many readers. In the opening poem, “Whole Foods,” she writes, “Multitasker: you correct my posture while you Instagram an onion. / It’s a shame I can’t bake bread / with gluten / to throw at you.” The poem captures the shift from affection to constant criticism, while poking fun at the trend of baking bread and ubiquity of gluten-free diets among 20- and 30-somethings.

A number of line drawings mimic the blue and green speech bubbles that characterize text messages. One reads, “I just want what’s best for you,” with a bubble interrupting it that says, “don’t say for myself.” This blend of image and text is reminiscent of digital messages, spattered with icons of purple crystal balls, red emergency sirens, and clanking beer glasses, all of which are contextualized by the content but are still open to interpretation. For instance, “Half Time Show,” in the first section, “Food for Thought,” opens with the description, “our relationship through the years, performed by a procession of zany Pringles.” Names of flavors written in the shape of chips fall down the page: “TRULY ORIGINAL,” “JALAPEÑO,” “SCREAMIN’ DILL,” and, finally, “LOADED.” In this and other poems, she exploits the many — often humorous — connotations of words.

POP tends toward hopelessness. (One poem is a word search with a title that asks the reader to “find hope” — spoiler, it isn’t in there!) Banu’s poems don’t rush to comfort, but rather to give voice to the disillusion of love’s ending, through a cumulative effect. Individually, they read like everyday phrases, but line after line, and poem after poem, they accrue more weight. “It’s important to remove your clown makeup after destroying the life you thought you were building together,” she writes in one of the final poems. “Good grease makeup remover can keep your skin healthy and clear during periods of crying in your cubicle as you leave voicemail reminder for Toyota service appointments.”

Excerpt from POP by Simina Banu, published April 2020 by Coach House Books (excerpted with permission of the publisher)

Banu’s simple language conveys the complexity of an ending with unmistakable sadness. She expresses the realities of moving on — such as crying in public while doing mundane tasks — that are not often elevated to the level of poetry. Her combinations of graphic doodles and plainly written text leave room for interpretation and empathy; readers can fill the space between the words and images with their own tales of heartbreak and misunderstandings. Banu’s poetry celebrates those who speak of love and loss in the language of emojis and memes, and have had our hearts broken by a text a message.

POP by Simina Banu (2020) is published by Coach House Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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Megan N. Liberty

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book...