POETRY: Body & Soul, by Judith Valente

When you enter the world, you come to live on the threshold between the visible and invisible. (John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes)

Imagine those moments
after the soul leaves the body.
Imagine the body’s immense
loneliness: a manse suddenly
shorn of its single boarder. A child
banging its fists against the living
room window, begging for its mother
to Come back!
as the car jerks out of the driveway
—for all the child knows, forever—
and there’s that awful last glimpse:
back of a head growing smaller, smaller
through the rear windshield.
This is why we should stay
close to the body after death,
the way we used to hold wakes, at home
and around the clock, until the body adjusts
to its noiseless status, widowed rooms.

The monks of St. Lleuddad labored
to pinpoint the seat of the soul.
Day and night, in a dank cellar
they sliced through blackening corpses,
the abbott settling finally on the pineal gland:
cross-section of cranial concavities,
disengaged from the grosser parts of blood.
How does the soul disengage?
Shoot like air from a depressurized cabin?
Drift through a cracked window
like the musk scent of a summer house?
Does it seep like runoff, spurt like blood
from a severed vein, or exit in stages,
an actor drinking in final bows?

John O’Donohue says we should
think of death not as the breath
on the back of the neck,
but a companion with us since birth,
benign doppelganger who knows us
better than we know ourselves.
That’s not to say
we’re like Schrödinger’s cat,
at once dead and alive—
but death we carry with us,
close as the fine hairs caressing
our skin. Of course, John is a theologian.
I prefer physics. Julian Barbour’s concept:
time, a continuous tableau of many
different nows, each a single frame
passing an all-seeing lens,
so the instant of me in my kitchen
a few minutes from now,
stirring a can of Campbell’s tomato soup
for lunch in 2001 Chicago,
rolls in simulcast
with Andy Warhol applying a splotch
of fire-engine red to his soup labels
in 1962 New York.
We are at once fetus and 44 years old,
molting in the Big Bang
and reading this poem.

Where does the soul go?
Meister Eckehart was asked.
Nowhere, the great mystic replied.
He believed an invisible world
lies just inside the visible,
which would suit me just fine
because there is so much of this world
I’d miss and want to hold on to,
like Nick at the N&G Grocery,
saying Artichokes, we have artichokes
before I even ask, and
Next year we go together to Greece;
Earl Grey tea and cinnamon scones;
this afternoon sun, waving a yellow hand
across my neighbor’s balcony,
falling like a spotlight on the roof
of the Chicago Historical Society
where the Stars & Stripes
dance a samba with the wind;
this snow, spread like steamed milk
on the sidewalk beneath my window;
the red terry cloth robe I’m wearing:
spiral note pad, No. 2 pencil
stuck inside its pocket.

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