POETRY: Two Poems on the Soul, by Carl Dennis

On the Soul

They told you you owned it and you believed them,
Flattered as if a real-estate man,
Pointing to a mansion with a lofty portico
On the crest of a hill, had assured you it was yours,
And the dream sounded too good to be resisted
Even when the doorman had sent you around back,
Even after ten years’ work in the kitchen,
Ten years on your bed of straw
Dreaming of the empty suite upstairs
And of the empty bed with the crown
Hanging from the bedpost, bejeweled with your name.

It would have been better if they’d said nothing,
Or told you it lived its own life, like deer
Hidden in the woods, not seen from the road
As you drive past in the car, not seen
When you stop and climb the fence.
Even if they browse on your own land,
They’re happiest left alone,
Stepping down in the evening to the stream,
Bedding down in silence under a screen of thickets
To dream what you may guess at and can’t know.

A Chance for the Soul

Am I leading the life that my soul,
Mortal or not, wants me to lead is a question
That seems at least as meaningful as the question
Am I leading the life I want to live,
Given the vagueness of the pronoun “I,”
The number of things it wants at any moment.

Fictive or not, the soul asks for a few things only,
If not just one. So life would be clearer
If it weren’t so silent, inaudible
Even here in the yard an hour past sundown
When the pair of cardinals and crowd of starlings
Have settled down for the night in the poplars.

Have I planted the seed of my talent in fertile soil?
Have I watered and trimmed the sapling?
Do birds nest in my canopy? Do I throw a shade
Others might find inviting? These are some hand metaphors
The soul is free to use if it finds itself
Unwilling to speak directly for reasons beyond me,
Assuming it’s eager to be of service.

Now the moon, rising above the branches,
Offers itself to my soul as a double,
Its scarred face an image of the disappointment
I’m ready to say I’ve caused if the soul
Names the particulars and suggests amendments.

So fine are the threads that the moon
Uses to tug at the ocean that Galileo himself
Couldn’t imagine them. He tries to explain the tides
By the earth’s momentum as yesterday
I tried to explain my early waking
Three hours before dawn by street noise.

Now I’m ready to posit a tug
Or nudge from the soul. Some insight
Too important to be put off till morning
Might have been mine if I’d opened myself
To the occasion as now I do.

Here’s a chance for the soul to fit its truth
To a world of yards, moons, poplars, and starlings,
To resist the fear that to talk my language
Means to be shoehorned into my perspective
Till it thinks as I do, narrowly.

“Be brave, Soul,” I want to say to encourage it.
“Your student, however slow, is willing,
The only student you’ll ever have.”

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