One Hidden Stuff by Barbara Ras

More Beautiful Than Its Discovery

reviewed by Liz Forsythe

Barbara Ras’s second book of poetry takes its title from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, included as an epigraph to the book: “Everything in Nature contains all of the power of Nature. Everything is made of one hidden stuff.” One Hidden Stuff (Penguin Books, 2006) tackles the intricacies of both the miraculous and the mundane, and indeed, looks to find the hidden meanings beneath things—the titular “one hidden stuff” contained within all parts of nature. The first poem of the collection, “Rhapsody Today,” showcases not only Ras’s command of lyric and musicality, but also introduces the spiritual quest of the book:

Maybe today you’ll see the fawn on its gawky legs, the spots on its side
floating tentatively like some leftover dazed grace
so that you think about animals, their paths to righteousness…
…And though of course evil will enter into every day
maybe today it will be impersonal, butting into your life quietly…

These ideas of righteousness and evil, of the spiritual and the natural, are carried delicately throughout the work and examined as part of that hidden stuff.

What strikes me most about Ras’s work is the elegance of her writing; she writes in long lines with a mastery of lyricism that I find difficult to articulate besides describing her language as simply beautiful. Even when discussing the ordinary—the moon, or a dog, or the life of a mother—these things become lovely within her hands. For example, in her poem “Secret Lives,” Ras writes:

The same moms that smear peanut butter on break, sometimes tearing
the white center and patching it with a little spit
The same moms who hold hair back from faces throwing up into bowls
and later sit with their kids at bedtime, never long enough at first
and then inevitably overtime…

Even though this poem tackles the mundane (and often quite icky) jobs that come along with the role of motherhood, there is something lovely about the way Ras presents it. We see the figure of the mom—and I believe the word “mom” in lieu of “mother” is important here—and we see the care and kindness inherent in the role. One can picture a mom’s hand smoothing the hair from the forehead of the sick child, or taking care to fix the peanut butter sandwich. Furthermore, as the poem goes on to describe what the child imagines moms do when not with their children, we see again the hidden stuff guiding the book:

or are they talking about their bodies and what they did with them/in Portugal, Hawaii, the coast of France, it’s better than cards/its anatomy and geography, they’re all over the map.

Here, through the lens of the child, Ras renders the figure of mom as beautiful, almost spectacular in a way, in that she has a hidden life both in her past without the child and in her present when without the child. It is, in fact, the mystery of the mom that is beautiful. And that, I believe, is what Ras’s book overall is preoccupied with—the beauty of the mystery, of the hidden stuff, and that the search for this hidden stuff is perhaps more beautiful than its discovery.