Originally published in Willow Springs 74
From the author
“Texture of the Soul”
During the course of writing my fifth book of poems, entitled Pictograph (Milkweed Editions, forthcoming in early 2015), which was inspired by my studies of and visits to pictograph and petroglyph sites in the American West, I became interested in the ancient origins of our concept of the soul.
For me, the most mysterious and captivating images, pecked, incised, or painted onto rocks, are the “anthropomorphs,” half human, half animal or godlike creatures with horns and interior designs of starbursts and zigzags, often depicted as coming out of cracks in the cliff or cave wall.
It seems that the people who made these images, most probably in visionary trance, were in contact with an older, deeper world for which only the word soul is most appropriate.
I am thinking of the soul not in terms of its place in organized religion but rather in the shamanic sense, as a part of us that might be connected to the living body of earth and thus be capable of understanding “the language of nature.”
The soul, of course, is notoriously difficult to define. For many, it immediately disappears into an abstraction, much like its sisters: spirit or shadow or mind. Once, I asked my composition students to add an appositive to the line, “I was thinking of the soul, . . .” and found that it was almost impossible for them to come up with a concrete image.
Their answers were abstract: the site of immortality, the source of goodness. When pressed, the closest they could get to something we could apprehend was a quality: darkness or light. On another note, a few years ago, my mother asked my sister and me to send her a photo of something that reminded us of her soul.
A surprising request, true, but not unusual from my mother, who was raised as a Spiritualist and who often spends her days navigating the stream of ghosts, apparitions, and premonitions that come to visit her. I knew the feeling of her soul, a purity and buoyancy I would recognize anywhere as her, but the task of finding an image to photograph was difficult.
I ended up aiming the camera into the sky during a snowstorm.
I began a series of poems, which I provisionally call “Another Letter to the Soul,” and which includes the poem published in Willow Springs, I knew right away that, instead of defining the soul, I would have to access it using my five senses & what Blake, incidentally, called “the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
I wanted Images, which are, as the poet Adonis writes, a “language of love,” rather than “a language of explanation.” Texture came first: to touch the soul. Then came sound and sight & all the senses employ ways of touching, of course. The challenge of writing this kind of poem is obvious, the soul being a decidedly unfashionable topic in our post-romantic age.
And that is part of what interests me, the soul as something hidden, unspoken, and yet something we are searching for: the soul of America, the soul of humankind, the damaged soul, the tortured soul, and the soul of the torturer. And how to heal it.
The image in the last section, by the way, is inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s Bedouin healer in The English Patient. The reference to the four parts of a person’s inner life, in the first section, comes from Assiniboine poet and educator Lois Red Elk.
Notes on Reading
I read a lot of poetry, but I also enjoy and learn a lot from prose, both fiction and literary non-fiction. Recently I read all of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, starting with Coming Through Slaughter. How in the world could he know so much of what he could not know of New Orleans jazz in early 1900s, and at such a young age?
I love smoky, intense works written with careful, beautiful sentences: all of W.G. Sebald, for instance. Again, recently: Tan Twan Eng’s twin novels about the Japanese occupation of Malaya, The Gift of Rain, and Garden of Evening Mists. Also Pamuk’s Snow and Roberto Balano’s The Third Reich. I copy passages that strike me for their rhythmic intensity into my writing notebook and later try to replicate them, using different words, of course, but trying to discover what it is that moves me so.
I like reading work that is able to be lyric and informative at the same time, such as the essays of Rebecca Solnitt or John Berger. Poetry influences less my craft, I can’t let it! Except for Rene Char, whose prose poems, translated by Robert Baker, taught and teach me the pacing and lift of the non-narrative prose poem, which is a form I came to late and which is now dominating my practice.
About Melissa Kwasny
Melissa Kwasny is the author of five books of poetry: Pictograph (Milkweed Editions, forthcoming 2015), The Nine Senses, Reading Novalis in Montana, Thistle, and The Archival Birds. She is also the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950, and co-editor, with M.L. Smoker, of I Go To the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights. She is currently working on her fifth book of poems and completing a book of literary essays on the image, provisionally titled “The Imaginary Book of Cave Paintings.” She lives in western Montana.