In an interview on the eve of his film release,
Paul Giamatti described what people’s souls would look like
if everyone could see them. For example
Willie Nelson’s soul would be an ear of roasted corn.
Giamatti liked the idea, personally, of having a country singer’s soul,
but not Merle Haggard’s, which would be kind of rusty
with lots of buildup.
The guitarist Slash’s soul was ‘a blood orange
left out on a windowsill,
all dried out and leathery’.
Freud’s soul was a piece of Babylonian statuary,
with the fulsome beard, the half-a-lion, the wings.
Jessica Simpson’s soul was hard to pin down, but in the end
was maybe a tape measure. Donald Trump’s was a nice set
of whitewall tyres.
Kim Jong Il’s, ‘a crazy box of crabs’,
and Henry Kissinger’s, ‘a doorknob’.
Giamatti thought his own soul, truthfully, might be
a hand-painted ceramic toad. Something decorative
yet inconspicuous, to go in the yard, something that visitors
would refer to (in hushed wonder) as a ‘thing’: ‘You know,
I kind of
like that thing.’
Giamatti was very good at bestowing souls.
I bet it was a game he liked to play
as he walked round Brooklyn, glowering at the homeless,
the autograph hunters, the blood-sucking poets
the misspellers of his name.
His approach was poetic: you could look at his souls
in a number of ways; they crossed a number of windows, to and fro.
The problem, though: if the soul was (for example) a peahen
then what about the peahen’s soul? Where does it reside?
We will never know the inner life of the peahen
nor that of the ear of roasted corn
that the peahen has eaten.
My mother’s soul might resemble a moon
but that only seems so because I am far away.
In the Giamatti film the soul is burdensome.
His character is weighed down
by all the nameless anxieties inside.
But as it turns out, Paul Giamatti’s character’s soul
is nothing more
than a single, heat-treated chickpea.
As he peers into the plastic cylinder
where his extracted soul rolls about
he looks so lonely for himself
it breaks my heart.
Is that my soul, I used to wonder
when I woke up sad? It was as if in my sleep
my soul had mistakenly risen to the surface, forgetting
that its adaptations were meant for the deep.
Or was that not my soul at all—just the undertow
of a dream? And was my soul like nothing, or nothing more
than a cut driftnet, growing things on its ropes;
was it only the passage of light through shadow?
Ashleigh Young is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Wellington. Her first book of poems, Magnificent Moon (Victoria University Press), was included in the Listener’s Best Books of 2012 review. Her essays and poems have appeared in places such as Sport, Landfall, Turbine, and Booknotes. This year she is guest-editing the literary journal Hue & Cry. She blogs at eyelashroaming.com.
Young comments: ‘This is dangerous territory for a poem, I guess—the SOUL. There’s probably an old, unspoken rule that a writer must not write about the soul more than once in their lifetime. And in fact this poem almost didn’t make the cut in my book—it was accused of being silly, or maybe grasping at things it had no business grasping at. But I’d wanted so badly to write about the idea of the soul. I couldn’t suppress it any longer. I thought one way to talk about it would be through the words of someone else, someone who’d always seemed to me to be particularly soulful—who even plays a character burdened by the heaviness of his soul—the actor Paul Giamatti. Then, once I had lured the reader in with the interesting things that Giamatti had said, I could throw the net over them with those final lines. “Actually, this is all about MY soul!” It’s a mean trick, I suppose. But those final lines are not really about me at all; they’re about an imagined me. If I had a soul, I think it would be more like an old piece of Blu-tack that doesn’t stick any more, or a bit of Fimo.’