on The Last Skin, poems by Barbara Ras (Penguin)
Barbara Ras’ third book of poems, The Last Skin, is marked by worship and worry. Her materials include the death of a parent, travel and meditation, nature and memory, serial wars, time. But it is the profound, implacable tension sparking through those materials that creates her distinct manner – graceful or erratic gestures veering between the devotional and the quizzical. I take a harrowing pleasure here in listening to the erosion of stability and sanity by experience, emotions not displayed but unmoored, seemingly irreducible – salvaged by the generous accommodations and resolving shapes of the poems. Often praised for its values, Ras’ poetry interests me more for its extremities.
The opening poem, “A Book Said Dream and I Do,” lays out the stakes. There is a dream of feathers, sunlight, parrots, hibiscus-red colors. Despite its time-stopping beauty, the enclosed vision can’t serve the active demands of life. The poem ends:
Despite the halt of time, the feathers trusted red
and believed indolence would fill the long dream,
until the book shut and time began again to hurt.
The Last Skin is an alternative book of the dream – but one that admits within its selectivity as much of the recalled substance of the world as possible. Her poem’s moment may behave like a distressed or capricious timelessness, measured out in sound, abraded by the impingement of the past. In the book’s second poem, “The Water, The Sand, The Embers,” the speaker takes possession of the reverie, now a tough, stricken, and agitated elegy:
THE WATER, THE SAND, THE EMBERS
Frailty everywhere, in the loops
of blood traveling 12,000 miles of veins a day,
and in the fluttering of prayer flags hung out
on a cold day that promised sun, but delivered
snow, all its flaky symmetry lost on impact.
Trembling in the cities, wavering between masks
and crutches, between Rabelais and Robespierre.
Harshness of light, bend of dark, the boots
of justice, trembling. Should I speak of bones
in a plot of purchased dirt, buried in dark
mahogany, itself in danger?
No matter what, at the wake
they’ll say, “She looks good, doesn’t she,”
death and disguise at a standoff so tense,
And you, the last time you trembled –
was it like bird, beast, or fish? Or like
trees, the most agile of tremblers?
The water, the sand, the embers tremble.
When the sun angles at the right slant,
it finds us in our little cave, a few friends,
a late huddle, failure dancing around
our fragile fire, the fire we feed
with our nail bitings, our paper money,
our guilt, our worthless guilt, breath and more
breath, while beside ourselves, our shadows flicker,
in despair, in laughter, the same trembling.
The first-person plural is addressed often in the book’s remarkable first section reflecting on “this bloody / bombastic order / of our days.” There is also the shock of one’s solitary presence in a violent world. In “Other Than Fullness,” the speaker mourns the sounds of her mother’s lost voice, “the sound / I would give all the transparency / in all my windows to get back, even as memory, / even dreaming, but asleep, instead of her words, / it’s just my own voice that speaks, the voice / that last night announced to no one, / Abandonment certifies your heart with thunder.”
The word “certifies” is a fine choice, lightly underscoring one of Ras’ anxieties, the traditional anguish of the poet: Am I worthy of my materials and memories? Am I capable of creating language that delivers a complete vision of experience? But in The Last Skin, the classic unease is heightened. Ras draws dramatic situations in which her characters attempt to be observant and articulate – but fail attractively. “Sitka Cemetery” ends, “If I had had a pencil, I would have broken it / in two and left one half on the grave of a mother, the other, / on the grave of a child.” In this way, the speaker is found worthy of creating whole speech out of fragments.
The second section includes a series of travel poems about Lake Titicaca. Even in her most descriptive runs, Ras will risk indicating a further significance. So, in “Why the Lake” she writes, “To be in that space / between the lake and sky / was to be inside chanting, / desire made so celestial, / it stops.” These often talky, prosy lake poems carry the speaker’s sense of removal, a wish to be true to the occasion of seeing – but memory intrudes. When Ras is in the grip of her more lyrical, frightening impulse, she reels in her lines:
But above us here in clear skies
there are stars that could keep us
from staring into the storm,
from bloodying ourselves
over and beyond the call of beauty.
Just as she disavows the timeless pretty feathers and birds in the book’s first poem, she remains fixed in a linear jam when observing her world. The lake’s chanting beauty may halt desire provisionally, but Ras’ voice is devoted to its dilemmas, all her lovely descriptions notwithstanding.
On to the final section, a Poland travelogue, a writers conference, and reflections on an American life. History pursues, “the long lash of time.” She severely indicts her own “Polish uncles” for their “awful stubborn ignorance” and hatreds, presumably for the Jews who died in the camps outside Kraków. There is a gypsy palm reading, a memory of driving through Texas. In the latter, Ras mentions “the road’s cabinet of wonders” – occasionally she indulges in a cute conceit that intrusively contradicts the greater chastened ethos of The Last Skin.
At times these poems read like subtextual requests for special dispensation – judge me as one who tells a bitter, considered, respectful, idiosyncratic truth, and I will be saved. The best Ras can do, and she does it with panache and passion, is to act as her own pardoner. Here are lines from the middle section of the next to last poem, the superb, tragicomical “Exercising a Verb Used in the First Person”:
I pardon knowledge for its impossible vastness
and the God particle for its infinitesimal infinitude,
and the bureau of time for defining
the exact hour of twilight. I pardon scientists
for harvesting fog, but science brings up too many
numbers after the decimal point, so excuse me
if I go back to my own anxiety,
which I pardon for its namelessness, but not for its
clammy grip …
The “last skin” is both the body of the imaged poet and the final “shell” of the mother. So Ras has placed her signature poem, “Washing the Elephant,” at the end of her book: “Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash / the elephant, begging the body to do it …” The poem is vintage Ras: the emotions named, the modulating intimate tone, memory, fragments of story, detail phasing into metaphor, and the daring to specify what matters:
If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Or the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
and down 34th Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken
In The Last Skin, speaking in exile from vanished affections, Barbara Ras offers a vibrant, fierce and embracing vision of something George Seferis observed in his notebook -- “In essence the poet has one theme: his live body.”
[Published March 30, 2010, 68 pages, $18.00 paperback]