The Edible Heart

Eric Smith

BPR 43 | 2016


The Edible Heart: Obliteration and Awe in the Poetry of Barbara Ras

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 43 and as a downloadable pdf)

Barbara Ras is the author of three books: Bite Every Sorrow (winner of the Walt Whitman Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award), One Hidden Stuff, and The Last Skin. In his citation for the Whitman, C. K. Williams praised Ras’s poems for being “informed by a metaphysically erudite and whimsical intelligence.” David Kirby suggested that the “long, beautiful sentences” of One Hidden Stuff “weave the miraculous and mundane into a single, luminous tapestry.” Donna Seaman described the poems in The Last Skin as “witty and ardent,” “compassionate and generous,” and “sonorous and enrapturing.” One couldn’t be faulted for imagining a body of work so stuffed with wonders, so all-encompassing in its reach that it exists in a state only perceivable through superlative interpolation.

While Ras herself isn’t averse to juggling similarly ephemeral abstractions (in “Bad Hair,” she suggests that her subject measures “single-strandedly the breadth between righteousness and force, / targeting the distance between worship and terror”), even a cursory reading of her work reveals the granular particularity with which she approaches the world. In one poem, light strikes the Bay Bridge, “turning the ironwork at sunset into waffles.” In another, “a cow chews lugubriously, and I’m almost close / enough to hear its stomach drumming / out of beat with the thumping of its edible heart, and the breath / rushing in and out of lungs the size of small tents.” At a party, grasshoppers “tasted stale, the flavor of seeds / retired from making music in very old gourds.” These poems are the labors of a meticulous hand, but one clad in a clown’s glove. They exhibit a vision of and an appreciation for the world that is half prayer, half suplex. Ras’s poems don’t simply observe—they grapple. If there is an edible heart in her poetry, it is the world’s—and it’s one she’s already taken a huge bite out of.

But to what end? Why does a poet write as maximally as Ras does, testing the limits of syntax, of breath, and of a reader’s patience with all this linguistic and imagistic megatonnage? Why do her critics spend so many column inches on her swashbuckling syntax and too few on the raw nerviness such sentences expose? Perhaps unfairly, I worry that the superficiality of such praise risks framing the poems as equally shallow. A more earnest read would reveal not only the pleasures apparent in such praise, but also sketch out what lies at the center of her best poems—an emotional and psychological vulnerability only partially obscured by (and one that often obliterates) the poems’ abundance.

Fittingly enough, “Abundancia” is the best poem in her first book. It is relentless: six sentences in forty-plus lines zoom the length of the page in ramshackle assemblages of pyrotechnic wordplay and exacting imagery. It begins:


On the train as it rolls in and out of stations,
abundancia underground,
abundancia above, the sequence constant,
dark dark light, dark dark light,
then the longest dark, abundancia under the bay,
and abundancia
in the mother combing her son’s hair, pulling the
ten-cent comb
again and again through the already yielding strands,
and in the bending of the boy’s head abundancia as he
holds still for the part,
his hair obeying the invisible line she makes on his
head.

The train is an apt image for Ras’s project (as one review of her second book noted, “the small pleasures of these poems speed by like scenery in a train window”). The velocity, all of those moving parts working in unison, and the marvel of the machine gliding effortlessly against the horizon have clear analogues in her work. This one zips beneath the San Francisco Bay into Oakland, and offers glimpses of the lives it passes. Sometimes these glimpses are tangible, as in “the quick step / of the hobo crossing the highway at dusk with his dog,” or the friend who offers a recipe for “leeks and mushrooms with polenta.” Others are less so: the “heart’s many holes each fill with grief,” the speaker says, and “morning light will shine like faithfulness / on the papaya and lime.” Despite its profusion, there is pressure on the poem to faithfully maintain that “sequence constant,” to “obey the invisible line.”

But this is also a poem of longing, of distances that cannot be traversed. No train can carry us wholly into our memories. And so the poem concludes, with the speaker’s desire:


I long to get back to Anna,
our occasional wild dancing in the kitchen and
abundancia
in the way she loves to be dipped, her head thrown
back
until her hair brushes the floor, home to Alfred,
who once in the dark of an island house unwrapped
a small talisman
of peeled garlic he held in his hand, and later
after he wrapped the buds back into their tiny cloth
bundle, we slept
under the open window, his elbow on my arm, a sweet
anchor
in the deep blue abundancia of the ocean
rushing around us.

Though the poem’s final lines are freighted with gravity and rooted in place—family intimacies in dark houses, anchors in an ocean of adoration—we are suspended in that unfulfilled ache from which the end of the poem emanates: “I long.”