Acclaimed poet visits campus

by Alexis Starke | 11/5/98 6:00am

The Creative Writing Program of the English Department will present a poetry reading by Barbara Ras today at 4 p.m. in the Wren Room, Sanborn House.

Barbara Ras is the winner of the Walt Whitman Award for 1997, an award sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and given annually through an open competition among American poets who have not yet published a first book of poems.

Her poems have appeared in publications such as Boulevard, American Scholar, Massachusetts Review and Orion. She lives in Athens, Ga., and works as an editor at the University of Georgia Press.

C. K. Williams, in his judge's citation for the 1997 Award, writes of Ras's winning collection "Bite Every Sorrow" that "Barbara Ras's poems are informed by a metaphysically erudite and whimsical exuberance ... This is a splendid book, morally serious, poetically authentic, spiritually discerning."

Ras opens a section of "Bite Every Sorrow" with a quote from Czeslaw Milosz, "When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers."

Throughout the collection, Ras acknowledges such hurtful sorrow, as she writes of "the past year of my life, loss after loss/ held aloft to show how inexorable/ these endings, the passing of all things, all oranges, all sawdust,/ that always break at a wing, a paw, some point/ of reaching out."

She admits the frustrating sadness of the little boy "looking out over the cranes at the Oakland docks, past/ armies of forklifts painted a putrid green" and "the flag of a ruined country,/ one wracked by mobs, the kind that give anarchy a bad name."

She concedes the sadness of death that "Makes the sky white behind the black helicopters/ flying in formation over the downtown, makes the mind wander/ onto the ledges of skyscrapers, past clouds, past the ozone,/ thinning as we all know too well."

Yet Ras insists on the existence of those riverbanks of which Milosz speaks. "And when adulthood fails you,/ you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond/ of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas/ your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept," she writes.

Ras repeats reasons to cope. She recalls surprises when she writes, "And who would expect the woman in front of me/ to take a baby opossum-like creature out from under her long hair."

Ras also captures fractal-like shifts in perspective: "Plants I knew as potted -- bloodroot, poinsettia, fuchsia --/ here the size of trees."

Offering a model for approaching this world freshly, Ras molds angels on holidays: "At first all they want is watermelon,/ big bites, spitting out the black seeds/ while the red pulp melts in their mouths./ They eat it on the ground, their wings/ resting moplike behind them, then they go on to rice,/ eating it with their fingers, the grain's grain,/ weddings' exuberance."

Ras suggests a pattern for enduring and overcoming sorrow through the creative process. In analyzing her faith in creativity, she distills a great debate: "The outer atmosphere versus the inner world./ It could have gone on forever. Instead/ it took no time, staring into space,/ to decide it was not quite empty/ but rather waffled with wee things, semicolons/ of light, the odd numbered jewels of a watch,/ some strokes lost from a Chinese word/ that might have been magnolia, or maybe murder."

Ras comes back to her belief in the ability to adapt, to construct and reconstruct reality.

She quotes Gabriel Garcia Marquez and writes, "It's hard to know who is more in touch with reality: those who believe in illusion or those who don't believe the truth."

In affirmation, she returns to the constant, comforting presence of the voice, "the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother's,/ it will always whisper, you can't have it all,/ but there is this."

Faithfully, Ras finds comfort in "the soulful look/ of the black dog, the look/ that says, If I could I would bite/ every sorrow until it fled."

Her poems give hope for such an accomplishment.

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