Bone by Bone

Barbara Ras has been recognized as an American poet of the first rank: her first volume of poetry won the Walt Whitman Award given by the Academy of American Poets, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009, and her work has been published in magazines such as the New Yorker, Orion, and TriQuarterly. She moved to San Antonio in 2002 to revive Trinity University Press, which had been defunct for 13 years. Her third book of poems, The Last Skin, was published in March by Penguin.

The second section of The Last Skin is called Lake Titicaca, and its first poem, “Why the Lake,” ends with the lines: “To be in that space/ between the lake and the sky/ was to be inside chanting,/ desire made so celestial,/ it stops.” Betweenness seems like an essential characteristic of your poetry: over and over we find a tension between presence and memory, grief and desire, ferociousness and tenderness (to borrow from Gerald Stern’s blurb). So I’m wondering not so much why the lake, but why a specific place to anchor the center of this book?   

The Lake Titicaca poems came on the heels of work that was laden with death, burdened with darkness. Being at this particular point on the earth represented a clearing, an awakening, a place of dazzling light. So much water in such close proximity to sky created an elemental and mysterious sense. Something about being there — at such a high altitude, where it feels like the earth and sky almost touch — captivated me. It’s similar to the feeling of being in a cathedral, or in the presence of something larger than human, calling forth words like sacred, geological, timeless. The central issue has to do with the power of the planet, expressing itself in the thinnest air, the brightest light, and an abundance of water. Add to that confluence a remarkable array of indigenous cultures and the mix is intoxicating. As far as their placement — the poems intuitively seemed to belong in the middle to provide a resting place, or perhaps a side trip, in the larger journey of the book.  

When you mention the larger journey of `The Last Skin`, I’m reminded of the very end of the last poem, “Washing the Elephant,” which describes “memories that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.” Because of your way of traveling so gracefully from image to memory to feeling, I’ve often wondered while re-reading The Last Skin whether the entire book is a way of “washing the elephant” — removing the dust and dirt from memories, helping them fit together and connecting them with the present moment. Is this a fair way to read the work?   

Wow!  What an amazing perception. I wouldn’t have had that thought in a million years, but you articulate beautifully what the book attempts. I have to say attempts, because I don’t think I can ever claim to fully accomplish the travel you describe. Isn’t all poetry a reaching out toward some larger mystery? I don’t know if I manage to arrive at what I imagine, at what I desire. 

I have to ask here about the refusal to bow to the task that the mystery sets out. There’s an uncharacteristically short poem that fascinates me in this book called “No Matter What.” Here you talk about “grief’s labor” and its demands that you “take them one by one, bone by bone” and suck the marrow out. I get the sense that grief — which I see as the central mystery of this book — is not a passive state but a work that needs to be done. So the question is, do you really desire to reach this mystery, to do the work that it demands? Or are there conflicting desires here?

I would say “all desire is conflicting,” but I’m not sure how that relates to your question. Grief is an essential mystery. Despite the fact that everyone feels it and that ultimately it’s a universal experience, when one is in the center of grief, it’s generally — at least it has been in my life — a lonely, private affair. I’ve found that it’s very difficult to share grief, as either the griever or the consoler. There’s ultimately so little to say, to do. Grief is humbling in that way, as I’m sure many people have found, their pen hovering painfully over the blank card on which they want to write condolences. It fascinates me, too, how each death, each grief, recapitulates previous losses and magnifies them. So yes, a lot of the poems try to get into the heart of grief, beyond the bareness of loss, under the last skin, so to speak. As a wise friend reminded me at lunch today, “We all lose everything in the end.” It makes me wonder why, given that, it’s so difficult for people — and here I mean in a larger social and political sense — to find compassion.

Since you mention compassion, do you see this work, or maybe all your work, as an act of compassion? There are certainly moments of rage and judgment here, but to open up the landscape of your thought to this degree feels like a very difficult act of love, “over and beyond the call of beauty,” as you write.

Yikes. You ask tough questions. I don’t think it’s up to the writer to characterize her writing as an act of love or an act of compassion. We could talk a long time about compassion, and whether its consequence is suffering. Isn’t there also some comfort in feeling connected to other sentient beings? Being conscious is painful, so if we pay attention to events around us, we have to recognize that a very large portion of the world suffers in ways that are unimaginable to us here in the wealthiest, and often most misguided, country on earth. For example, can I legitimately ignore that the U.S. is ramping up its deployment of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan? The use of these weapons, operated like video games from thousands of miles away, is morally questionable and some reports say that 1 of every 3 people killed is a civilian. It hurts to contemplate that knowledge, but can we back away from feeling compassion? Or from protest? 

Art, creativity, poetry are antidotes to despair, in my view. Experiencing other people’s work gives me great satisfaction, great joy. As far as my own process, it mostly feels like searching in the dark for answers to questions that are unanswerable.  (Isn’t that a good place to end an interview?)

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