A Review by Scott Hightower
“The Last Skin” Barbara Ras
Penguin, 2010, 978-0-14-311697-4, $18.00
The poems in Barbara Ras’s new book, The Last Skin are as fluid and graceful as those in her previous two collections: Bite Every Sorrow and One Hidden Stuff. The Last Skin is an extension of the metaphysics laid out in those first two books, and Ras’ poetic stance is that of someone who values life. Her long lines, long sentences, and artful syntax peel back the secret meanings of the diurnal, the life of the imagination, and the state of the soul.
The Last Skin is organized in three parts. The subject of the first part is the loss of a mother. In moving through the stations of grief and the misery of one’s own anxiety, Ras evokes wishing, love, and sorrow. Anxieties are expelled and poetic clarities are achieved:
All year, death, after death, after death.
Then today look how majestically clouds float in the sky.
. . . . the moon turning half its body away,
holding it hidden like the black side of a mirror, unseen
until it breaks, unexpectedly, the way grief
breaks over you when you’ve already given all you’ve got
and hands you tools you don’t know how to use.
Dreaming, reverie, and death are frequent topics in poetry, but they are not subjects that lend themselves to easy success. Ras handles all with pitch-perfect dexterity. Avoiding romanticisms, she stretches and bends metaphor into teasing language, before breaking it open into poetic meaning:
Has anyone described the smell of wishbones drying
on the kitchen sill or the smell of glass, or the bucket of water
lifted from the well we go to when death takes the last thirst
from someone we love?
(“The Last Skin”)
The second section of the book is a short collection of poems based on Lake Titicaca. (The lake is on the border of Peru and Bolivia.) And while the subject of the section is a shift, the voice is ever tender toward existence:
… my camera captures the boy posing in front of his house,
thinking about this tourist lady, and what could she possibly know
beyond a door, the color of a little bit of heaven
with some darkness added, and the right amount of oil
to make it shine.
The final section returns to departure from the misery of one’s anxieties. Several different landscapes are employed. There are poems about irises in Krakow, an evening with vodka is glasses with waists, taking a drive in Texas, an oxcart and the aroma of hazelnuts, a palm reading, and a mysterious elephant. Without sugar-coating, Ras always turns the speaker and reader back to the realization that loss is connected to valuing something properly. When we lose something, it is because we fail to value it properly.
I’ve forgotten how we freed the falcon in your backyard
stuck between the fence and a bush.
Wasn’t it strangely easy, despite the bird’s desperate flapping,
how with no hesitation or wound, we helped it
Barbara Ras is one of the finest poets working today. Her third book is stellar and a welcome to the shelf. It is one of those books one buys in multiples and periodically slips into an envelope and sends to friends.