Where Justice and Whimsy Lead

Megan Sexton

BPR 43 | 2016

Where Justice and Whimsy Lead: An Interview with Barbara Ras

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


In your most recent book, The Last Skin, your poetry seems to dress the wounds of your past, but as Faulkner says, and I get the feeling you are saying it too, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Can you talk about the role of memory and history in your work?


Memories form the largest critical mass in my conscious and unconscious life. They’re the keepers of life’s experiences, and, yes, its wounds, and what I’ve read, heard, learned, and yearned for. Memories elude constancy, each of ours being just one of the Rashomon versions possible. Thus, because memories can play hide-and-seek, shimmer in the half-light, and be too hot to handle, they can be hard to capture, to get right. For me, trying to get as deep into memory’s well as possible—to understand, to connect the past to the present, and to figure out how an identity, a sensibility, a person evolves from a bundle of what’s happened, and what’s remembered—makes for interesting work.

Memories are history. Not just our own, but our collective knowledge and stories. Some of my favorite poets take their power from memory—W. S. Merwin, Larry Levis, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, to name four of what could be dozens. And then there’s a book I admire and want to mention that delves into prehistory, and imagines what painters in the depth of caves felt when they relied on memory to create the first human art on rock walls. Anne Marie Macari’s book of poems Red Deer accomplishes the fantastic feat of inhabiting the world of these painters and their dream time, while at the same time weaving their underworld into an idea of the feminine. Recounting that kind of deep cultural memory seems to me to be the important work of poetry.

But any memory that can be captured from the foggy bottom is espionage worth the effort. Of course, the challenge is to recognize how memories can energize a poem, provide an emotional connection for the reader, and also reach out into some larger sphere. No one wants to hear whether you scrambled, boiled, or coddled your eggs this morning. That’s what Facebook is for.

That reminds me, however, that etymology, being the memory of language, gives us a potentially fabulous riff on eggs. Take the origin for the tennis score “love”—meaning “no points made.” Though unsubstantiated, it’s intriguing to believe that “love” derived from the French word for egg— l’oeuf—the visual equivalent of zero. I could imagine someone taking off from there and creating a winning poem about the constellation of love, eggs, and zero. Ultimately it’s all in the writing. Pushing it to the limit.


I admire how you overlay your personal and ancestral history upon larger historical moments—I am thinking here about “The Irises of Krakow.” What does intertwining the two do for you?


The poem you cite recounts my return from Auschwitz to Krakow to then seek refuge in the city’s botanical garden, which was ablaze with irises and color and the potentially healing quality of that beauty. Haunting me was my own Polish immigrant family’s anti-Semitism.

Even your mentioning that poem brings up the same alarm I felt while I was writing it. It was painful and awful to write. I’m not even sure it was appropriate to attempt to write it. To one extent or another, Adorno’s declaration that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” cuts deep into a poet’s consciousness, especially for a poet having witnessed the physical, grisly ground of the death camps. For me, as a non-Jew, to try to express anything at all, let alone anything worthwhile, raised unanswerable questions. My only recourse, in the end, was to personalize my incomprehension by implicating my family, whose members were to varying degrees—undeniably and intolerably—anti-Semitic.

To generalize from this particular poem to my use of ancestral history, I can say that I spent a lot of time isolated in that culture, and more time distancing myself from it. Like many immigrant groups, my family kept to their own. And in my girlhood and adolescence, I tried to keep as far from that identity as I could. I grew up, went to college, and moved on, and my Polish family and their Old Country culture retreated further and further from my experience.

Despite that, in the past few years, I’ve felt more inclined to access that immigrant past, to make peace with that heritage, or more generally, my childhood. It means connecting with a lot that feels alien, and potentially hostile, to who I am today. The antagonistic elements have to do with rejecting many of my family’s assumptions—their insularity, their fear/shame of being “foreigners,” their distrust of other ethnic groups, and their ignorance and intolerance of people outside a known circle. It also means connecting with the silence that pervaded my early years, when the only way to deal with emotions or conflict was to ignore them.

It’s kind of outrageous that I came from a family that couldn’t talk about anything in the open, and I’ve become a writer who lets a lot of buried stuff bleed onto the page.