COVID poetics
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COVID poetics

19 — Eight lives

Based on lines by Ursula K LeGuin

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

There are times for me when the words of just one or two writers and thinkers seem to encapsulate complex truths. No doubt, this passes. Ideas move on like clouds across the sky. Nevertheless, right now, and intermittently through my life, Ursula LeGuin’s stories and her gentle, anarchic constructions have seemed to me to carry more truth than most.

This poem is based on lines from her short story, ‘Ether, Or’, in the collection, The Unreal and the Real. The lines are spoken by Edna, a woman at the heart of the strange shifting community of Ether, Oregon, in a reflection on her life. “All right now, I want an answer. All my life since I was fourteen, I have been making my soul” she begins:

“I… am sixty years old this winter and think I should have time for a question. But its hard to ask. Here it is. It’s like all the time I was keeping house and raising kids and making love and earning our keep I thought there was going to come a time or there would be some place where all of it came together. Like it was words I was saying, all my life, the kinds of work, just a word here and a word there, but finally all the words would make a sentence, and I could read the sentence. I would have made my soul and know what it was for.

But I have made my soul and don’t know what to do with it. Who wants it…?”

Maybe sometimes, when we are trying so hard to make a life — a soul — we might miss something deep in the living. Edna goes on to say that we make our souls for glory — but she has a warning: it doesn’t last…and what’s left are the realities of ageing and dying and reflecting on all the time we have been searching for a destination, when there was really never anywhere to go…

Eight lives

“But I have made my soul and don’t know what to do with it.”

I

If there are eight versions of a life, and each has its own trajectory,
does the same soul follow the same path each time?

Does the same nest hold the eggs; the acorn fall to the same place
on the forest floor; each birth take place under the same star?

Does soul one read the same books as soul seven; does soul three
marry the same person as soul five? Is soul two lost or found?

Is there a bundle of traits that play out in the world, to make one character?
Is there an age at which each soul is made?

II

I am sixty two, and approaching a long winter
alongside all the rest of my lives.
Everything is clouded in uncertainty,
and the invisibility of death makes a lottery of history.
Life number two is rising, as life six is fading.

III

Soul bubbles through regardless
Soul is made then falls away, returns in Spring
Soul is in the spaces between the stuff of all the lives
Soul follows the flows and eddies
Soul takes time to uncover all the constellations
Soul is a multiverse
Soul is a verse
Soul…

IV

Having conversations in which the polarities are infused with sadness
and grief and the curtain is torn

Having a faltering response to failure and intimate meetings between
one and two and three and seven and four

Having a meeting with creation where the rules are being bashed out
by five and six and eight

Having parties at which birth is celebrated and everyone is dancing
through the forest to find themselves

V

I pause beside a lake. There is a small boat.
I alight and row out onto the black waters.
Following behind me is a small flotilla of my selves,
heading for the island, that glows red in the distance.

VI

I hold something that shines like blood in the palm of my hand
I hold your life and mine in the balance.
This animal loves me, clings to my skin, turns away,
dies in one of my lifetimes, lives in another.

VII

Soul…
Soul is in that love
Soul is in that death
Soul is in the shining and the spark
Soul burns into the sky and is followed by hunters
Soul is only one of eight and all beyond
Soul is in the spaces between the stuff of all the lives
Soul is what the nest holds

VIII

When one shell breaks, one life begins, then another, until there are eight lives squawking for sustenance.

Feed me, feed me, they shout, and eight souls fly here and there, into the valley, up to the hills, catching clouds to feed a world.

Numbers one to three are eating their fill. Numbers four to six are scrabbling in the dirt. Numbers seven and eight go hungry — runts that they are.

All right now I want an answer . I have made my soul and don’t know what to do with it. Who wants it?

Note: the last lines are by Ursula K LeGuin and were taken from her short story, ‘Ether, Or’, in the collection, The Unreal and the Real.

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We will not return to normal. Or we may come to redefine it…

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Steve Thorp

Steve Thorp

Integral counsellor & poet. Soul maker. Warm Data host. Edits Unpsychology Magazine & COVID Poetics on Medium.

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