Holding Together What’s Left: The Blues of Heaven by Barbara Ras

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Bereft. It’s an old word that sounds like feathers and feels like a big hole in the heart. At its root it means to have what you once possessed torn away. Bereft’s other form, bereaved, refers more specifically to the loss of close relatives. One bereaved as an adult is bereft of the past one’s family enlivened. One bereaved as a child is bereft of a future one’s family would have inhabited. The Blues of Heaven, Barbara Ras’s fourth collection of poetry, marks the loss of both past and future: Ras grieves for the family she grew up with and for the future of our ailing world.

The blues are aching songs. Heaven is the release of ache, right? Ras’s title is like so much of her book: it creates questions out of itself. What heaven has sorrows? What sorrows does heaven have? And blues: are they songs or those celestial colors, that vast beauty? Where do we find such color? What can it do for us? In a poem called “Potatoes,” two-thirds into the book, “the blues of heaven” appear, named. They are beings and they are a visionary experience. In a poem steeped in loss, Ras writes of “a color, so alluringly beyond blue / you want to name it hope…”

You want to, but do you? Do you dare hope?

In the book’s first poem, “Salad Days,” blue sky isn’t hope. It’s the real world. Hope isn’t necessary yet. The speaker enters the dark of a fun house with her brother “to be scared”—the fun house kind of scared. The kind that ends when you leave it to enter again the “blue sky” and “run breathless to your mother and father, happy.” A moment of such certainty. Such clarity. A childhood in the comfort of familiar, familial. In retrospect, perhaps, a kind of heaven, now torn away:

…nothing in those early evenings free
of care could have prepared you
to be the last one left, the one
with grief to spare.

What do you do when you are the last one left? When blue is empty?

With the disappearance of “the whole family you were born to,” details grow immense. “No one gets you like a sibling,” writes Ross, “…all that time braying together in a small pack.” When your sibling dies, who but you remembers your scraps of childhood? “Dear world,” Ras writes,

take your petty pace and shove it.
Our mother used to count out the same number of each color
of M&Ms for me and my brother. Memories. Memories.

Earlier, the poem tells us how “at the end of the rain Noah was left with one raisin on the ark. / Put that in your lunch box and smoke it.” The personal and the mythic slapped side by side, with two little snacks and the same verbal structure of defiance, anger.  It is worth noting: in that old story, Noah comes through calamity—squeaks through, the raisin suggests—but like Ras, he loses the whole family he was born to. His past literally washes away.

In The Blues of Heaven, it’s not clear that even a raisin is going to make it through our present calamities. Ras moves from personal loss to planetary. Our world, our blue sky is the familiar we’ve taken for granted. But with specters of massacres, genocides, tortures, and planetary degradation, we must contend with fears of societal demise, earth-demise, and a feeling that nothing is secure. We have not yet lost the whole world we were born to, but Ras’s poems consider this possibility. One (which surely began as a verbal joke—say “Bugs Pray” out loud, and see what you think), ends with echoes of that first family scene:

The world of bugs prays with fervent hope,
“Please don’t leave us the last to survive
on a planet you wrecked…”

And in “Debt” Ras writes of a desperation to save anything, even ourselves:

Who among us has a rope long and strong enough
to throw to their ghastly descent

and the coming of our own.

How can life go on? How can it not? With grief in two directions, Ras names outright her guilt, anxiety, and despair. “Dread sucker-punched my inner weather, knocking out / the breeze I need to get out of bed,” she writes, and “I worry about how suddenly bleak my temptations turn.” An entire poem of worries, “In the Last Storm I Tried to Write the History of Secrets” ends with “I worried words would fail me. / I worried that I had failed the words.”

Despite darkness, there is an ongoing search for cohesion, tenderness, and hope in this book. There is beauty. “I praise the palms flouncing their fronds / loudly rustling in gusts swarming off the gulf,” Ras writes in “Dragonflies.” Lush, sensuous. “Swans glide on a lake in light / so painterly you might as well call it wet,” she writes in “Swans.” Beauty in interludes. What we could be losing, but also, what we still have.

Poems seek to pull together the self and the world, with all their inconsistencies and contradictions. In “With a Small Flashlight,” we look “through the retina to the top of the brain,” a tiny, inward, even backward vision which shines light into a personal past of fear, shame, and avoidance—but also, ironic tenderness:

filling the shallow concrete bowl of the birdbath
so that birds could drink and flutter their feathers
outside the inside life.

“Balance,” asks to explicate contradictions: “please, / share the equation that balances / swamp and drain, villainy and virtue, / make and break.” Another begins with a crucial button falling off a blouse into a toilet and ends with global warming and mass graves. The mundane and the overwhelming intermingle. The seemingly unlike coexist. “Tuesday” presents a complicated story: a man leaves his wife and children for a woman who gives up a kidney to a stranger. Generosity, selfishness, love, heartbreak. What part of the story does one illuminate? How do you hold both the selfish and the selfless, the grief and the beauty? The poem circles like a dog trying to gather together its herd of sheep, trying to contain them all.

These poems frequently show the world, at whatever scale, to be full of failings, some of them terrible. But rarely do they name or indict specific perpetrators of environmental and social degradation.  CIA, politicians, “our depraved country,” a superfund site: these are general, anonymous appellations. Even the killer of the nine worshippers in the Emmanuel A.M.E. church in South Carolina is referred to as “a white kid.” Clear identification of systems, structures, dynamics of power that fuel and perpetuate violence can suggest avenues for changing thought and behavior, for dismantling and rebuilding a better future. Anonymity, in the case of these poems, adds to and comes out of a sense of despair: how can one address what seems to have no clear source?

These poems express a burdened soul. Depression is mentioned and evoked more than once, and with this, a sense of guilt and complicity even in acts of atonement. In “Slow Starting Rant,” the speaker writes “hysteria afflicts / everyone I know, and depression grips even hardy people.” Half-serious, half-mocking, the poem captures a sense of entrapment and inaction. Other poems indict self, and humanity in general. “We” is a tricky pronoun in the face of diversities of experience and power, but these poems take the stance that our species is culpable, that we all live under “our polluted skies,” that we inhabit one ailing planet. There is a ‘same boat” feeling here: we are all doomed if it sinks.

I return to that word, bereft: unless one can embrace the idea of “future,” social change seems futile. Action, pointless. This book can be seen as a journey through depression and despair as part of an attempt to locate a believable and energizing future.

A man kisses a loaf of dropped bread, which leads to an image of dancing “tying us in a small knot of humanity.” An old friend is overhead singing “try a little tenderness,” and despair lifts long enough for life’s energy to maybe engage again. In “Ranch Time,” bleakness is followed by the assertion that

At night the thus far unexplained dark matter of space
Reveals itself, holding a place, I believe, for particles
Of all the dead to gather, waiting to spiral again into life.

Near the end of the book, lost people begin to return in dreams. A spirit door opens letting voices from the past sustain us and release us. The dreamworld lets us draw from what’s been lost. The final poem is a tiny lyric to the future: a newborn child, held. With this last image the book leaves us resisting bereavement, or maybe, finding a way to hold both bereavement and hope, elegy and ode, together. It is small, this future, one child, but she exists.

In these poems, I found many blues. Heaven is harder to locate. Maybe one reason I appreciate this book is that it offers only moments, little heavens, like the shimmering of tiny fish in a blue sea. When my son was alert in the world but had not yet begun to talk, there was a space of time we watched a single segment of The Black Stallion over and over again. A wordless lyric of film, wherein the boy and horse, both bereft, encounter each other on an island. In the very water that separates them from everything they know, the boy climbs onto the horse’s back, both of them buoyed by blue. The cover of The Blues of Heaven shows a horse, seen from underneath, swimming in blue water. It brought to mind the images of the film and that time with my tiny son, watching worlds come together. I opened the book, half expecting, and wanting, that swimming horse. The swimming horse isn’t here, but the little fish are, the ones down at the bottom of the cover. The blue is. Maybe heaven is never quite what or where we expect it to be. Ras’s gift to us is that it’s here at all, little glimpses, swimming by. With ache and absence, guilt and worry, with all that’s been and being torn away, yes, there is still possibility.

Kelly Terwilliger is the author of two collections of poems, Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key, and A Glimpse of Oranges. A former editor and author with the Airlie Press poetry collective, she is a visual artist and professional storyteller and works as a writer, storyteller, and artist-in-residence in public schools in Oregon. She is presently working on an anthology of handwriting and poems of address. More from this author →