The shape of my soul

21 Feb

The shape of my soul

I like my coffee black and strong

My scotch neat, same with my gin

I hate overpowering my food with sauces

Italian, Greek, Spanish are to be preferred

Pasta aglio et olio—

No tomato or meat sauce if you please

Mies and Bauhaus speak to me more clearly than

Frank Lloyd Wright or neo-Baroque

The Great Plains of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado

New Mexico’s mesas

The endless Atlantic as I sailed to and from Europe

Restless waves lapping on any shore

The flow of cars on the Drive, along the shore

Echo the waves

These nourish my soul

There’s a starkness deep down there

That’s more satisfying than elaborate décor

In the sanctuary, it’s the classic liturgy,

Its bare-bones structure clear to view

Absent, please, elaborate decor

Does it make sense to talk about the “shape” of your “soul”?  About a year ago, sitting in that same café that figured in my previous blog piece, it suddenly occurred to me that my soul does have a shape, and I’ve been aware of it for many years.  These verses suggest how that shape appears to me.  I have since written a much longer poem that elaborates these images.

Is the term “soul” still usable?  Does it mean anything?  For the past two decades or more, I shied away from using the word at all—even in theology classes.  It means too many things to too many people.  We caricature the soul as a thing about the size of my fist, located between the top of my head and my belly button.  Who believes that?

A couple of years ago, I ran across a group of poets—some religious, some not—who assert that without a belief in the soul, there can be no poetry.  Some of them put together an essay collection,  A God in the House:  Poets Talk about Faith (Tupelo, 2012).  Sven Birkerts describes himself as non-religious, yet he writes that his soul is “the active inner part of me that is not shaped by contingencies, that stands free.”  It is “the part of the ‘I’ that recognizes the absurd fact of its being.”  Hear Adam Zagajewski on the soul:

We know we’re not allowed to use your name.

We know you’re inexpressible,

Anemic, frail, and suspect. . .

And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice . . . (“The Soul”)


It camps in the Rocky Mountains of the skull.

An eternal refugee.   (“The Self”)

Denise Levertov, in her poem, “An Interim,” speaks of that which,

While it drags on, always worse,

the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant

rapid upon a cracked surface;

lightly, grimly, incessantly

it skims the unfathomed clefts where despair

seethes hot and black.

“Soul” in these poems is far from a bland “thing” lodged somewhere in our bodies.  And soul has more than one mood, more than a single voice.

So, I ask you—what’s the shape of your soul—and what difference does it make?

4 Responses to “The shape of my soul”

  1. Esther February 21, 2013 at 5:27 am #

    I think of “soul” so often that when I renamed myself several years ago, I chose “Neshamah” as my middle name…

  2. Stewart February 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    I think your soul is quite visible, Phil. And none too frail, anemic or suspect.

  3. Stephanie March 1, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    I have often thought of my soul in terms of landscape or space–as if my soul bears the imprint of a particular landscape, as if my soul were wax. And when I am in that landscape (or recall that landscape) that has left its mark, my soul breathes as if coming up for air after long periods of drowning under water, and sighs relief and rests peacefully. For me that landscape is the barren, marshy shores of Cape Cod (Massachusetts). Or it is that interior spatial sense of falling into God which I experience and can relive in meditative prayer. Thanks for asking the questions, Phil.

    • philnevahefner March 1, 2013 at 5:27 am #

      Wouldn’t this be a rich small group experience–to exchange stories of the landscape of our souls? Thanks for sharing.

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