Body, Soul, Words

Rebecca Brown

Words are us trying to give body to soul.  Soul is unseen, inside, before and beyond particularity.  Words are us trying to say something, make something visible, pin it down, which maybe could kill it, but we try anyway.  Because something we don’t understand wants to be said.  Words are like coins we trade back and forth, like currency, they mean because we say they do.  They’re containers for things that can’t be contained.  We try to make them hold our love, our grief, our…. uh… uh…. uh… to tell us who we are.

Soul is a noun and an adjective, an it described with an article, an attribute without.  You can have one or the quality of.  Can you also not?  Can somebody not have a soul?  Does anyone not want to?   We are because we’re given it; it makes us.

Soul can be also site, as in, “deep in my soul”; a person itself as in, “there wasn’t a soul in sight,” a saying in which soul is a person with a soul, a synecdoche, a figure of speech, from Greek for “simultaneous understanding,” in which the part stands for the whole or the whole for the part, soul being part of everyone. 

Or everyone’s part of it, according to Emerson, who defines “The Over-Soul” as:  

that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart…

The soul is held in the arms of the heart.  A body is held so too.  Does anyone not want to be held?

The Greek closest to our meaning of “soul” is “psyche” which came from words meaning “breath” and “life,” and is the word from which we get “psychology.”  Greek “soul” is the vital breath, the spirit, the animating principal of life.  In St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spanish the soul is “anima,” and it is  - we are - saved by a merciful God.  In Jung the anima is the feminine part of a man’s personality, the part of the self that’s directed inward to the subconscious.  Is soul—the soul—female?

St. John of the Cross, a fellow Spaniard and near-contemporary of Ignatius, is the writer from whom we get the phrase “the dark night of the soul,” from the one short poem and two lengthy books of commentary on the poem that imagines the night-time meeting of the first person narrator Lover and his Beloved.  The Lover is the soul, the person; the Beloved is God and the dark night is what the Lover-Soul experiences after the first blush of falling in love wanes into the dullness of daily life and then the the despair of falling out of love with God and feeling duped, resentful, distant, hopeless, dark.  The dark night of the soul, in St. John’s telling, is followed by the Lover-Soul’s return to the Beloved-God to dwell forever in mature, accepting unity. 

Nice work if you can get it.

In De Anima, Aristotle compares the oneness of body and soul to the oneness of the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp.  I like that image, but it’s still just an image, a picture meant to look like something invisible.  It’s only like, it isn’t it.  What is?

My philosophy teacher friend explains how Aristotle’s concept of the soul differs from Plato’s.  He tells me about matter and form and potential and substance and accident and soul.  I believe he understands these words; I know that I do not.

Here are some words from Isaac Hayes and David Porter, via Sam and Dave: 

I'm a soul man

I'm a soul man


Got what I got the hard way

And I'll make better each and every day


I'm a soul man…

Hayes and Porter wrote this song in l967, four years after the Birmingham bombings, two years after the assassination of Malcolm X, the March on Selma and the Voting Rights Act, and right after the 12th street riot in Detroit when black people had written the word “soul” on the homes and buildings owned by black people so that these buildings would be passed over, the way Jews had marked the lintels of their homes with the blood of a lamb so the angel of death would pass over.  These were the buildings of people who suffered beneath oppressors, but knew how to, subtly, secretly, take care of their own.

A soul man is a man who has lived a life that has not been easy.  He has suffered and learned how to take care of himself and his own. His soul  may be inborn, but his soul (-ness?) is earned.

The words you write may be born in thought but they are not born fully made.  Words get where they get with labor, with the hard wet messy work of being born by a human being.  I don’t want to say that the making of words requires suffering, but I think I can tell when art is made without labor or heart.  I think I can feel when art does not have soul.

Sometimes the words “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably, which might sound okay until you take those nouns and turn them into adjectives.  A spirited thing is ebullient and light, it bubbles.  A spirited youth is a lively girl or boy, someone with spark in their eye.  Soulful is someone who’s been through stuff, and been around and suffered.  Soulful is dark as  well as luminous. 

A letter from Keats to his brother and sister-in-law in 1819:

…..The common cognomen [nickname] of this world  …. is 'a vale of tears' …  What a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making".….. … [T]hey are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. …  Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?

A person’s soul is made through her experiences.

A story’s soul is made in the labors of the heart and mind and lots and lots of drafts. 


The body grows visibly.  We come squalling and messy from our mother’s bodies.  Our stories come squalling and messy from us.  We grow and learn and our stories do, too; we shape and reshape them and hope they grow into things that can stand on their own and be true or beautiful and then we send them away.  Then part of them isn’t us anymore, just theirs.  Does part of us go with them, part of our soul?  Do we lose or gain by this?   Does soul increase being given away?  

Sometimes words know more than us.

Sometimes what we do not or can’t say stays in us.  Sometimes because we’re afraid or don’t understand, or sometimes because some things aren’t meant to be said. Some things are beyond words. 

I spent a week at a writers’ conference where I taught a class in the morning and attended readings in the evenings.  I paid attention to the work my students read, and tried to offer useful responses to them.  I listened carefully to writers of poetry and prose who presented their stories and poems on the big stage and I said nice things to them after they read.  But now, not a week later, I remember only vaguely what was read.  What I remember is who read.  I remember people nervous and proud and eager to read, and all of us sitting listening together, not alone in the dark.  

The distinction between ‘verse’ and ‘prose,’” T.S. Eliot wrote, “is clear; the distinction between “poetry” and “prose” is very obscure... I object to the term “prose poetry” because it seems to me to imply a sharp distinction between poetry and prose. which I do not admit, and if it does not imply this distinction, the term is meaningless and obtuse, as there can be no combination of what is not distinguished.

But every writer knows that there is prose and poetry and sometimes they’re very different but sometimes you just can’t tell.  Is that sort of like how body and soul are not distinct?  They’re not identical, but each needs the other to be.

I don’t write like I did 30 years ago.  My body is older and slower and my words are slower too.  Some things I used to think I no longer do; some things I used to want to say don’t matter to me now.  Some other things - not words - mean more to me.  Has any of this to do with soul? 

Or have I just gotten tired?  Maybe some getting tired is good, like giving up some particulars, some stuff I can barely remember now, some stuff maybe I didn’t really need so much after all.  Stuff I wanted to write or be or be seen to be.  Ambitions I had, the longing for respect, renown, money.  Resentments I nursed.  My jealousy.  Regrets.  Some things I wanted instead of appreciating the good gifts I have been given. 


From the index of first lines at the back of the Harvard edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson:

Soul, take thy risk 

Soul, wilt thou toss again

The soul has bandaged moments

The soul should always stand ajar

A poem by Emily Dickinson:

Bind me - I still can sing-

Banish - my mandolin

Strikes true, within-

Slay - and my Soul shall rise

Chanting to Paradise

Still thine -      

The soul outlives the body.  After the body dies there’s something else, in memories or others’ acts or other things we don’t really know about but that doesn’t keep us from trying to imagine or write about them.  Like maybe the rightness of what we write is less important than our attempt and our attention to others.

Is soul so we are not alone?  Are words a part of this?  Of God?

“The soul is known by its acts,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, his multi-volume though incomplete masterwork.  Thomas wrote a lot of things - hundreds of sermons, commentaries on scripture, philosophy, letters, exhortations.   Then late in life he had a mystical vision after which, and in comparison to which, he wrote, “Everything I have written seems to me like straw,” and he stopped writing. 

But Thomas’s God lives on for us in the words he wrote to try to understand him.  Is writing acting too? 

I’ve been trying to understand things by comparing them: the soul to that which longs to speak; the body to words; the longing for words to the longing for God.  But I don’t really understand these things, much less how to connect them.  Maybe I’m  trying to compare things that aren’t distinct.  Maybe I’m trying to think my way to knowing what I can’t.  Maybe I’m trying to understand what I need to accept.  Maybe I need to live with mystery.


Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown is the author of thirteen books published in the U.S. and abroad, most recently Not Heaven, Somewhere Else (Tarpaulin Sky,  2018). Her other books (novels, short stories, essays, prose poems) include American Romances, The Haunted House, The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary, The Terrible Girls (all with City Lights Press) and The Gifts of the Body (Harper Collins). Her work has been translated into Japanese, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Italian, etc.  “Body, Soul, Words” will appear in a book of essays she is putting together for the Fellow Travelers Series. She lives in Seattle.

Rebecca's Articles at KGB LirMag