"Soul" is the word I edit out of writers' first drafts whenever possible. It's a word that causes me to roll my eyes and turn the page when I see it crop up in an essay about death in which the author is trying so hard to say something meaningful. Soul singers like the unrivaled and recently deceased Charles Bradley can gracefully shoulder the term, but mostly it's a word that's been drained of its power (if it ever had any) through woo-woo philosophy, self-help factories and cheesy marketing (Think: Chicken Soup for the Soul and Missoula). It's a word that sounds big and important but too often comes up empty.
But now here goes poet Melissa Kwasny deciding to use the word not just in the title of her new collection, but as the focus of every poem in it. In Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today, Kwasny explores it like she's a hundred Wallace Stevenses looking at a blackbird (if the blackbird was a soul) and the result is a book that gives "soul" the kind of in-depth attention it's needed, in a way that feels fresh and specific and full.
Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today is the award-winning Missoula poet's sixth collection. It's divided into eight sections, starting with "The Deer People" and followed by similarly subtitled sections such as "The Blue Heron People" and "The Creek People." The sections and poem titles evoke ancient indigenous storytelling, and they feature elements of that traditional style: lots of natural imagery—blue sage, rabbit tail, antelope—and lines that sound almost like proverbs. But the poems also carry within them a stripped-down, modern-world anxiety. Kwasny doesn't seem to be telling us about the soul so much as asking a series of questions aimed at figuring it out. In one line she writes about holding a candle to an egg to check its freshness. That image is followed by "grown men can hold their guns to the soft belly of a child," and the next image describes violence (I think) as a "locked bedroom door bucking in its casement." Each image is dramatically different from the next, but also vaguely connected. Inside an egg shell is potential life and food. Inside a child facing violence is fear. Inside a locked room is something trying to get out. The simple description of "soul" is a spirit that never dies, even when the body does. Kwasny looks for it and finds it in spooky and unobvious places.
Between the sections are letters written "to the soul." These are often addressed to "you," which makes them feel personal and intimate, and allows "you" to shift shape, becoming the reader, or a friend, or a lost family member. Though these sections have the tone of love letters, Kwasny resists romanticizing the idea of the soul. Even so, she covers many of the bases that people like to talk about when they discuss spiritual matters. It's just that she does it in the language of imagery, slipping in the concepts without readers realizing she's doing it.
The soul is full of damages: "You are the story of my love in ruins," she writes in one letter, "the garden I planted in what was left of the concrete. You are the back step of childhood, mother and father so absorbed in each other their children were like ants got into the kitchen, a nuisance, an insignificant grief." The soul is elusive: "The deer under the cherry tree, gone at first light." It's a guide for survival: "My pilot light, you led me out. I recognized you first in the side yard, in the hard-packed solitude where the roses grew. In my adolescence you taught me to bear the heavy self, like carrying loads in one's arms of wet laundry." And it's not something you can keep: "But what are your attachments? I feel as if I belong to you, but you belong to something else."
Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today expresses the unseen through images of ephemera and anatomy. Kwasny also includes lines from poets including Seamus Heaney and Alice Notley, building a web around their words and giving them new context. This is a collection that butts up against the idea that the soul is a pure, untarnished entity fit only for some afterlife in a heaven away from earth. It's also a collection about human limitations. The soul portrayed here is beautiful and messy, and our perception of it can't really ever be separated from the bodies we live in.
Melissa Kwasny reads from Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today at the Dana Gallery Fri., Sept. 29, at 4:15, as part of the Montana Book Festival.