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Vsevolod Nekrasov, “The Soul”

Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “The Soul” scores a direct hit on the awkwardness of the word itself in poetry:

The Soul
Vsevolod Nekrasov

The Soul

/just kidding/

When I started graduate school, I remember thinking how strange it was that students and teachers talked about “the soul” so much. Yeah, that was the term in the older texts. But it felt like each time it was used, we should have had a discussion about its relevance and warrant. Not just assumed, say, that a form of Catholic theology operated in our understanding of the past. 

I didn’t want to use the word without being clear about it. It’s so easy to think of it in a sloppy way, as something having vaguely to do with emotions, reason, sin, and the afterlife.

For my own studies, I made a decision. “The soul” could be understood as the inquiry into what constitutes life. This could be the distinction between nutritive, sensitive, and animal souls, or it could be the more general problem that what puts the body in motion isn’t quite the same as that which we identify with rationality. 

With the idea that “the soul” could be used to describe a sort of philosophic, quasi-scientific inquiry, I could use it more extensively. Someone might have a noble soul if their thoughts, speech, and actions work in virtuous concord. This doesn’t represent a solution to the problem of how we recognize life as life. But if someone lives a certain way, the inquiry expands. How is their way of life possible? A human soul might be shaped by a society, or shape itself in response to one.

With this sort of reasoning, I became more comfortable with the word “soul.” But I still feel strange dropping the words “soul” and “philosophy” repeatedly. It seems more proper to me to say that older inquiries into how we should live, inquiries that are secular, use the term “soul.” (Likewise, the term “philosophy” concerns the possibility of inquiry in societies prone to believe strict obedience to the law cultivates virtue.)


I can only imagine how wild it is to write poetry—to teach poetry—and have to think seriously about “soul.”

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. What to do with the opening of the Magnificat?

You don’t want to reduce this to theology. You want the drama to shine. “Soul” and “spirit” obsolete themselves, experiences and emotions surface. “Soul” in the Greek is psyche, which works; “spirit” is more of a problem. It’s pneuma, which might be better rendered “breath.” (I think I get what the translator was going for: something akin to “living breath.”)

In any case, you don’t want to be translating, either. A young woman, unmarried, has just been informed she carries a divine personage. People think her sinless, which is fine, but it should not distract from how terrifying this whole event is. Now there are angels, there are signs. But what comes next?

All one can do is recall one’s faith. What has been taught, what is believed. It’s not an entirely pleasant moment.

It’s awe before the Lord, a literal transfiguration. You have to act like you understand it all, that it makes any sense. You’ll be depicted as one of the holiest of holies for centuries, but can that be seen and appreciated at this moment?

This heroic humility seems particularly apt when thinking of Christianity as apocalyptic. If the world will end in our lifetimes, then bravery in accepting the supernatural is the only virtue. We must be what we can’t fully conceive for the sake of the world to come. To be fair, It can be apt in a number of situations where moral urgency is paramount. We have to be that much bigger than we are to meet the challenge.


Not for nothing, though, do we strive for authenticity. To take on an appearance in which we have some say.

“The Soul selects her own Society,” Dickinson says, and I’m not sure if she means to brag or cry. Kings and chariots don’t move the soul. A beloved? “I’ve known her – from an ample nation – / Choose One – / Then – close the Valves of her attention – Like Stone.” It’s not even clear that the soul makes space for who it has chosen.

The soul commits to authenticity to such a degree that the rest of the world is forgotten. We, acting as normal people in our everyday lives, want to feel a real connection with the work we do. We are fortunate to not think too much about whether we have souls properly attuned to that work. A vague sense of satisfaction is enough. But the very concept of the soul raises the stakes.

I’m tempted to conclude that the awkwardness of using “soul” has to do with it being unnecessary. That’s flatly not true. It’s corny and cliche in the way love is corny and cliche. There are higher commitments. We make them and we feel awful when we fail them. The soul is the stakes. That’s why it’s a term I want to avoid—not out of shame, but reverence.

Adam Zagajewski, “Segesta” (from “En Route”)

Often, I try to disassociate “natural” from the “natural world.” 

Yes, there are plants, animals, forces, and plagues. They are a world unto themselves, apart from my anxieties and the processes—the rituals—which shape my reactions. The natural world contrasts with the conventional one, but that contrast can mislead.

It can lead away from the question of my own nature. What serves, what fulfills. What might be uncomfortable to admit or confront.


On the one hand, investigating nature is the furthest thing from tradition and religion. Questions shouldn’t be asked when one must humble oneself.

On the other hand, a specific culture—a certain time in human history—serves as shorthand for inquiring into nature. And so it happens that philosophy, religion, and even the natural world can be wrapped together in a few lines, and it feels perfectly intuitive:

Segesta (from “En Route”, in Poetry)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanagh)

On the meadow a vast temple—
a wild animal
open to the sky.

Trying to document new places doesn’t just result in big talk about ideas like “eternity.” Some of us hope for books to come to life. To see things we’ve only heard in part, imagined imperfectly, as revealed. Can a landscape and some ruins bring us a vision of the ancients?

Zagajewski reports “a vast temple” “on the meadow.” “Vast” and “meadow” carry significant weight. Immense architecture can be imagined in at least two ways. First, it could be that much more vast for those who built and used it. What stood as awe-inspiring, then. Second, there was more like it, even if not as powerful and lasting. What was the total effect upon a people? It’s difficult to imagine them as only profane, despite what we know about the sacred in our own lives.

The temple stands “on the meadow,” like it belongs there. “A wild animal / open to the sky.” It’s religion as confidence, a posture ready to act and be in this world. Unafraid of what it is. Naturally disposed. Alive, in confrontation with the heavens.


On the one hand, I know nothing about the Greeks. I’ve read all of Xenophon, quite a lot of Plato, some Aristotle, some drama, some poetry. Looked at some art.

On the other, I’m reminded of some lines from Antigone. Specifically, when Antigone is caught performing the burial ritual for her brother. The guard who catches her reports a large storm before she appears, one that nearly blinds him and his fellows. And then, after it passes, he describes this:

At last it ceased, and lo! there stood this girl. 
A piercing cry she uttered, sad and shrill,
As when the mother bird beholds her nest
Robbed of its nestlings; even so the girl
Wailed as she saw the body stripped and bare, 
And cursed the ruffians who had done this deed. (422-427, tr. E. E. Garvin)

Antigone, upon seeing her brother’s corpse defiled, cries like a “mother bird” whose “nest” has been “robbed of its nestlings.” Her bond, her emotions, are most natural. That she’s asked to forsake them is most unnatural.

The Thebans’ defiance of nature makes her larger than them. The guard sees her as if the storm brought her. It’s her nest which has been defiled. Her production, her home, her family is the natural order. The Thebans invite divine wrath—a wrath their orders cannot see or comprehend—because of where they trespass.

The tragedy might be thought unphilosophic. Religion, family, and politics brewing fatal conflict alone. I feel it trite to say recognition of the situation is philosophic when so much is at stake. When a girl, mourning her brother, stood before the open sky and wailed, filling the sky with what we can only imagine.

Emily Dickinson, “Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn” (764)

Presentiment, Dickinson says. Pre-sentiment, I say. 

A feeling before the feeling. A feeling about the future, an omen (Vendler 23).

A feeling before the feeling. Not quite grammatical, but it can make sense. Like standing as grass in “that long Shadow — on the Lawn.” Darkness will arrive, but I’m not sure how to react. I don’t know what to consider or imagine. 

An older way of speaking, perhaps: how should the body be disposed, what should occupy the soul?

Not simply uncertain, but stuck.


Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn (764)
Emily Dickinson
Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn —
Indicative that Suns go down —
The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness — is about to pass —

I’m tempted to overthink this poem. I don’t want to say I’ve been afflicted by “presentiment,” that I’m stuck in a shadow. Doing less instead of more. Wondering what I do that isn’t pointless.

There’s a lot of things I don’t want to admit, but there isn’t a fun or fantastic narrative in their place. I might complain about being treated unjustly and I’ll mostly be correct. If anything, I’ll be understating the problems I face.

The shadow disguises itself as patience. I’ll tell myself that the right opportunity has to present itself. 

It’s not untrue. But it doesn’t help build anything, let alone anything good.


Dickinson doesn’t make excuses. Or does she? If she’s afflicted by “presentiment,” then she herself is “startled.” She hints how she didn’t take care, didn’t properly prepare for the arrival of darkness.

The Dickinson poem I used to visit for optimism is this one:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Growth and flowering are prominent here. We’re not just grass, we’re daffodils, and it almost feels like we can do anything. “Cannot — must be / Unknown to possibility.” More immediate for us, the game of blowing on a dead daffodil, spreading the seeds, making a wish.

Daffodils grow and get startled, just like grass. Why are we limited to grass in this poem?


A thought. In any given situation in our lives, when we’re suffering from the bad and need something good, the good we need and the bad afflicting us are not proportional. There isn’t an equal amount of good to counter an equal amount of bad. To go further: there can never be an equal amount of good to make up for an equal amount of bad, because injustice isn’t remedied by good things happening.

Regarding this disproportion, it makes sense to characterize us as “startled grass” instead of striving daffodils. There is a sense in which we have to be passive. We can’t just imagine an overwhelming good solving all problems unless we’re crazy. The bad has to be identified and addressed.

This is the shadow, the denial. What I imagine patience. It is, cruelly enough, actually patience. There’s work to be done, but it isn’t clear what it is.


Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 23.

Adam Zagajewski, “Gulls” (from “En Route”)

The idea of travel can possess me with guilt.

How dare I try to leave? To see something more, something new? If I were truly grateful, I would try to make the most of where I am.

If I were truly capable, I guess, I could spin straw into gold.


Zagajewski, in this excerpt from En Route, describes an experience specific to travel. 

I go somewhere new. It feels different in a way I can’t quite articulate. I want to describe that feeling with what power I have, as if I am an explorer seeing a continent for the first time.

I want to capture the awe of Silent, upon a peak in Darien. Generations of readers would not object. The awe is a bonus. What they really want is an insight into the nature of insight. Why arrival in a new place enhances our sensitivity. How this can be brought home.

I don’t know the conditions underlying the writing of what’s below. I do know it has to speak to what’s common, what’s necessary. “Eternity doesn’t travel, / eternity waits” fails otherwise:

Gulls (from En Route, in Poetry)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanagh)
Eternity doesn’t travel,
eternity waits.
In a fishing port
only the gulls are chatty.

I know what doesn’t create this. It’s hard to get from expensive vacations for the purpose of demonstrating status. It’s hard to get from pure indulgence. From times which can be only bliss, where nothing challenging can be considered.

Some people will try to build a profound statement upon a lack of want. The reason why this collapses isn’t because they can’t say something beautiful or thoughtful. The problem is that people who need such a statement aren’t themselves moved from one blissful moment to the next.


Eternity doesn’t travel, / eternity waits. You’ve arrived, as a traveler yourself, at the docks. You’re watching fishermen get their boats ready, unload fish, bustle about. They’re constantly in motion and have no time to speak. 

You notice, behind it all, an infinite sea of blue. All these manmade constructs, all these activities natural and unnatural. And then, just a scratch away, a sea, an ocean. A world with unknowable depth, extending god-knows-where. 

Eternity waits. The blue, the depth, the other world has always been. You’re there, in a fishing port, and now it’s clear to you. It’s nothing that would make sense to the fishermen, or should make sense. Part of you is eager to say that this is a tendency among travelers to say high-sounding things. 

Only the gulls are chatty. Are we gulls for visiting and commenting? The poem slyly hints at this. And it provokes this thought: What’s wrong with that? The gulls traverse the deep blue and eat all the same. They’re travelers and survivors too, making the most of every moment. A “most” that isn’t wanton indulgence or paralyzing fear. Maybe the insight into the nature of insight has to do with saying something in the first place.