Imperishable Henry glared at the map
of the monastic remains in Ireland & felt threatened.
(His wife gave it him: 7/6).
He felt declared, well, out of bounds, say; crap.
The soul’s unreal! will you have your death unsweetened
or must I trot out again these stones & sticks
to be companion in ‘your’ pilgrimage?
Perishable Henry groaned, familiar too well
with the routines of decay.
His body knew it had to suffer, and rage
contorted its anti-Buddhist features. Still,
the body is having its day.
The body is having its day, & so is Henry:
winning tributes, given prizes, made offers, & such.
Only the terrible soul
had no inkling of what was to come for he,
he stood by his instincts & it was not much—
I hear the Devil like them whole.
I had read somewhere before beginning that B. was a devout believer in a personal God who intervenes in individual lives—for their own good, in response to prayer, here and now on Earth as we live our lives. I was interested to see how that spiritual journey plays out. Well, there have been moments, if I recall correctly, but on the whole, I wouldn’t call the guy a devout believer. Here, on one side of the dialogue, he admits it: “The soul’s unreal!” It exists in our imagination so that we can avoid having our death “unsweetened” (great phrase, by the way). “Soul” is a treacly defense against the unknowable void of death. When B. has gone imaginatively into heaven in The Dream Songs before, like placing Delmore Schwartz up there and then imagining the great time Delmore must be having with all the other immortals in his company, it was pretty clearly being done as an attempt to divert the stream of grief B. was getting soaked by. It wasn’t about faith, it was about grief. Here, he’s actually making a run at faith and finds he doesn’t have much to offer. Old churches? Hardly. Churches are stones & sticks. It’s all about sweetening, this church business Sentimental tripe and falsehood, in other words. On the other hand, there is the body, which sure does suffer, so that’s maybe a route to an understanding of the soul. The body feels pain, but it’s the soul that suffers. B. is thoroughly aware of what bodily abuse has cost him mentally, and the implication here is the cost is spiritual as well. “Still, / the body is having its day.” And how is that? “Winning tributes, given prizes, made offers, & such.” This is all social and cultural stuff! Which stems from brain activity, which is an organ of the body. The body is the seat of the soul; consciousness itself is an emanation of the body. And the thing about the body? It’s dying. This is unfaceable, so B. turns right back to the disembodied soul, and comes right up again against that wall that blank faith throws up. No way over it. So, “he stood by his instincts & it was not much.” Without faith, when you die it’s just over with. Unless the work the living body produced metaphorically lives on, something that had once driven him. But faith in that has been dwindling as well. It’s not much either. So, the prospect here is looking pretty bleak existentially, seems to me. The last line, “I hear the Devil like them whole,” just strikes me as a joke. Maybe a bit bitter, but probably tinged with a shade of astringent sarcasm more than anything.
So the dialectic here is not between faith and non-faith, or faith and despair. It’s between faith in the soul as disembodied and thus false on one hand, and the soul as situated in the body on the other, a mere emanation of it. But it’s doomed then. If the body dies, then the soul dies with it, and that B.’s problem. He has a failing body, threatening to decay very soon, and his soul will disintegrate along with it. So the soul is a figment on one hand, or a doomed emanation of the dying body on the other. Not so comforting a notion, and not much of a choice.
Here’s what I think he misses: We know the body is of nature. And if nature is holy, then the body is holy. But B. doesn’t give a damn about nature. There’s the rub. Consciousness is a manifestation of the physical brain, which is body. If the body is holy, then the soul is coming to us up from the ground, from matter, which is inspirited with God’s presence. And I’m saying that that doesn’t even have to be a matter of faith. The fact of your consciousness is the proof. Consciousness is spirit latent in the matter of our bodies because spirit is an inextricable component of matter. (This is Teilhard de Chardin’s take on it all, more or less.) I suppose this still doesn’t answer what happens when we die, the thing that prompts this poem and ties it to the wondering and anguish of every human who has ever lived. But at least it addresses what’s happening while we live. It’s one more reason to take care of yourself at any rate. In the end, in DS 341, I’m just not seeing any admission of faith of any kind.