T.S. Banks’ first book of poems, Call Me Ill, is a feeling archive of what it means to be at the mercy of the medical industrial complex and to be caught up in these interlocking systems of oppression — of race, gender, ability, capitalism — and despite physical and emotional trauma, deadening medications, cultural imperatives to suck it up and tough it out, T somehow maintained both a critical eye and a hunger for joy.
This is the poet, the one who feels all of it (the cries of “too sensitive” come from those ignorant or afraid of this power), the poet who can’t help but hold these depths of pain and imperative to love and live — the depths of joy! T gives us all of this. It’s “why my smile is so big,” he writes. “To know something wrecked can stand again.”
The poems now come from a person who, more often than not, lives in his “happy place,” who has survived and is thriving but does not move past or leave behind trauma and who is unwilling to edit it out. These poems are alive in their depth — they are fundamentally in their core alive — made up of these times when T felt least human, was most acutely dehumanized. And yet, he doesn’t write from the other side of something, from remembering it. He writes it from the inside out, from inside and not beyond his experience.
The book is organized in five parts: When I Knew it Was Time to Go to the Hospital, Waiting Room, the Emergency Room, B6/5 UW Hospital Psych Ward, and When I Came Home. The poems move through rhythmic flashes, details that come into and out of view, sounds and flashes between fear and terror and pills, injections. Details like the plastic bouquet of flowers, like the magenta of the blood pressure cuff, the child in the waiting room whispering.
Hearing his poems is like hearing the newest song, which is also the oldest story. These poems don’t tell a universal story. They are situated. The story of someone who is black, trans, queer, and disabled, and who wrote this book because he wants “other Black folx who live with mental wellness challenges to know, we can talk about these things,” and to know “it’s never too late to try again.” He shares his pain in a way that affirms humanity. These poems show a person caught up in a system that produces madness, that pathologizes human experiences, gives diagnoses and pills to people as a remedy for their oppression, calls confinement a form of treatment, makes societal maladies personal.
Call Me ill is, above all, a work of generosity and love, a willingness to share deeply painful experiences so that others may be heard. The title could be read like a command, “Hey, call me ill,” like Ill is a name, or like a challenge, “come on, call me ill, I dare you,” but in the end, I believe it’s more like an invitation, an introduction. A welcome. “Hi, sit down here. You can call me ill. What’s your name?” T’s writing makes you feel heard when you’re the one hearing it. He has this extraordinary ability to write his own very specific experience while also writing the story of black people in the United States, in the medical establishment, and the story of trans people, queer people, people with disabilities, and all of these stories intersecting.
T’s triumph in this book is his relentless commitment to tell the truth. It’s in his poem “August: Trans* People Murdered in 2017,” a list of names. They read like a poem, held like they are in the book. We are surrounded by lists of death and trauma, lists that are a step up from statistics. In these pages, though, this list of names, of trans people murdered, their chosen names like so many beautiful birds, hard-fought beings, triumphant, now gone. Stacked in their brilliant humanity, stacked in their demise. These poems are of T’s experience. These trans people are people he didn’t get to know, but a poem felt as deeply as the others here, an accumulation of violence and death waiting upon any coming home. These people are not left out or suffered in silence but marked on the page because their lives, and their loss, is wrapped up so tightly with our own. This is in the fabric of T’s being — love and deep feeling for human beings — and these poems are a testament to his connection to the world even in times when speech fails.
These poems are full of voices — doctors and nurses and family and God and T — and now, after listening to T read at his release party, they are imprinted in mine the way the truth does when you witness it cutting through the bullshit and sticking with you. I recently heard the poet Jericho Brown talk about how when you read something you love, it feels like someone has given something to you, and you want to give something back — you want to write something back, that’s how poetry works. Reading a poem you love is like finding a grandma, he said, an ancestor you didn’t know you had. I have not written in months, but when I came home tonight from T’s reading, I wrote for hours. I wrote this review. It came out of me like a spilling, or like his work reflected off of my particular mirror. This is what happens when you read something you love. It feeds you, and gives you back your voice, your spirit.
The very last line of the last poem in the book reads, “remind me, I made it.”
Remind me, I made it. T, you made it. You made it. And because you did, others will too.
T. will be reading and signing books at the Badger Rock Community Market, 501 E. Badger Rd., on October 1, noon-4 p.m. Copies of Call Me ill are available through T. Banks/Loud and Unchained Theater Co. for $12. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.