by Gabrielle Brant Freeman
So I went to see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art yesterday afternoon, and I was struck by a woodcut print called Encounter in Space. Two figures float by each other on a field of black; the female figure is blue and the male is red. It reminded me instantly of a yin-yang symbol, which then reminded me of Clive Barker’s Imagica. Which brings me to the poem “The Soul” by Tracy K. Smith from her Pulitzer Prize winning collection titled Life on Mars. Say what? I know, but just wait, I’ll get there. I promise.
In the woodcut, in the yin-yang, in Imagica, the two halves of the whole are always separated. Munch physically cut his blocks apart, inked them separately, and stuck them back together for the printing. The result is two figures who can never really touch. The yin and the yang are still divided by a line, and the characters in Imagica, if memory serves, are literally cut from each other. One of the purposes of poetry is to express what it means to be human, to show what this human life is, in a way that inspires new thought and reflection. Many of us have felt a sense of isolation, even when amongst friends and loved ones, and we may have wondered if human beings can ever really, truly connect with each other. Are we, ultimately, alone?
The pull that these two figures in the woodcut have towards each other is palpable. In “The Soul,” Smith describes another separation, that of the body and soul, described as “[t]he voice.” The poem begins this way: “The voice is clean. Has heft. Like stones / Dropped in still water” (23). The voice is separated from the body in the poem, and the body is described as “the silence around [the voice]…A garment / That attests to breasts, the privacy / Between thighs” (23). The voice, or the soul, is what has weight in this poem. This is unexpected. Typically, we think of the body as concrete and the soul as weightless. The unexpected contrast is what makes this poem work. And, because I am a poet, I like the idea of the soul as voice. There are all kinds of associations there, not the least of which is the gods creating life with their very breath. That is what writers do. We breathe life into being through our voices, our souls. Not to get all transcendental or anything.
I often describe myself as an existential-transcendentalist. Well, maybe not often, but I think this way: there is immense absurdity in this world, and there is immense beauty and power in this world. I find that poetry helps me when I try to reconcile the two. I will close with the last beautifully absurd lines of this poem: “But it’s the voice that enters us. Even / Saying nothing. Even saying nothing / Over and over absently to itself” (23).
Smith, Tracy K. “The Soul.” Life on Mars. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.
The title of this post is from U2’s song “Bad,” which I thought would be a little much to include in the post with everything else. And then there’s Hancock. Just sayin’.