Barbara Ras was the winner of the 1997 Walt Whitman Award for her first collection of poems, Bite Every Sorrow, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1998. The judge for the award was C. K. Williams, who wrote the following citation.
Sometimes it seems that what poetry finally comes down to, after all its engrossing technical matters of form and ingenuity and verbal engineering, is a largeness of soul. If poetry's virtues might consist after everything else in a richness of experience, a breadth and expansiveness of spirit, then Barbara Ras's book is a marvelously abundant demonstration of that intuition. What's most immediately striking about her work, and what continues to gratify in it, is its sheer human amplitude: her poems are rich with life-matter, with incisive perceptions and acute experiential insight; they're plotted with a wide-ranging self-consciousness and informed by a metaphysically erudite and whimsical exuberance.
From the very outset of the book, in the first lines of the first poem, a poetic world of sensitivity, of surprise, of emotional depth and acceptance is evident. That poem's text begins with its title, "You Can't Have it All," and goes on
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so . . .
There are many such moments in the book, situations of precisely observed and movingly rendered gesture, in which the domestic, the seemingly ordinary, is exalted by imaginative intensity and sympathy to something beyond itself. The work is consistently technically adroit, and regularly ranges through even broader geographies of regarding. The poem "My Train," for instance, begins in an apparently rather laconic mode but then immediately begins to expand and deepen, accumulating complexity and density in a series of phrases which work by a kind of syntactical enjambment, against which another, linear enjambment, resonates:
Just a few of us here at midday.
The Indian uniformed as a private guard is playing a radio
against the rules. From across the aisle the tinny singing
sounds like a supplicant with a head cold.
In front of me a woman with corn-rows is sewing
a quilt the size of a baby elephant, maybe the flag of a ruined country,
one wracked by mobs, the kind of thugs that give anarchy a bad name.
There's a maturity of association here, and a broadness of cultural reference evident again and again in the book. Another example, in the poem "Margin of Error," demonstrates the even greater distances the mind of the poems can travel to work out its insights:
If it's true, wrong action can lead to salvation, then no need to fix
anything, just close your eyes and feel
hands on your head as light as light, breathe
innocence like the smell of salt on the air of your child,
your spirit clement, puffing up just slightly like a white sail on a calm blue bay.
You might expect renunciation, saving grace, but suddenly here's
the horse Cortés abandoned in the island city of Tayasal,
where natives fed it flowers and meat.
What a wild surprise in a poem of religious reflection to be transported from a "spirit clement," to a conquistador's horse, a magical spirit-creature being offered rare material delicacies! And if almost all the poems move in such unexpected ways, so does the identity that inhabits them. The poems abound with encounters with real people, of real flesh and blood and identity, everyone from children to friends to lovers to people just passing by, who are sympathetically captured and offered to us, as, in "Low Planes,"
the man in the pink shirt at terminal B, sorry
he didn't kiss the Milanese on the mouth
when he had him alone in the elevator at La Scala,
he'll never see him again, and soon he'll be back
with his wife, who is beautiful in her own way,
letting him take her from behind.
Many of the poems point this way beyond themselves, out of the self, beyond the ego of their speaker. The book is a demonstration of what might be called a morality of inclusiveness, a Whitmanesque commitment to the wisdom of the individual case rather than the general type. And along with so much rich soul-work, there is a remarkable poetic skill. Ras structures poems with a zaniness and an unpredictable cunning, and her verbal expertise and lucidity are as bright and surprising as her knowledge of the world is profound. The wonderful sequence of poems which make up the second section of the book, all of the titles of which begin with "The Sadness of . . ." shows Ras at her very best, her most audacious, most tender, most aleatoric, most musical. One poem of the sequence, "The Sadness of Insects," propels itself forward in a dazzlingly ingenious dance of hemi-semi-quavering cadence-work:
Days the wind uses them to write on air, a score in 3-D,
arpeggios, tremolos, paradiddles, every appendage waving,
hither, there, until night when they settle down
to play the day's work.
Always the same, it begins "Beloved . . ."
It is an underworld of insects, clicking and shaking,
a castanet or tambourine in every claw,
each noisemaker out for itself, humming, drumming,
vibrating any body part that will move, wings,
hairy jaw, feelers . . .
There are many moments of such unruly musical force in the book, and Ras's characteristic rhythms have a similarly driving intensity. The poems' music fits precisely the breadth of her vision, the depth of her sympathies, her hard-earned rapture. This is a splendid book, morally serious, poetically authentic, spiritually discerning.