Almost any writing teacher will find themselves, frustrated after pouring over hundreds of pages of cliche, stock phrases, not just wanting to pull their hair out (if they have any left, hah), but repeating over and over the phrase: “avoid cliches.” We’ve all heard it. So when I first came to Laura Kasischke’s poem, “MY BEAUTIFUL SOUL,” which appears in her NBCC award-winning collection, Space, In Chains, in the fall of 2011, my readerly red flags were at high alert from the get-go.
I’m a skeptical reader (maybe more so back then than now?), so I couldn’t help but think, “Are you kidding me? My beautiful soul? Is this some kind of gift-card poetry?” before I even read the poem. And oh boy, was Kasischke using my own expectation against me like the sharpened spikes in a deadfall bear trap. The poem starts soft with seemingly innocuous verb constructions. The repetition of “It is” strangely leaves the sentences incomplete, and they establish a soft-spoken tone that doesn’t seem to be trying to exert its will over you–rather the tone seems like someone spitting out words in between not-quite sobs…the tone seems utterly defeated to me. And because I’m me, that’s why I like it–that recognition of your own helplessness, your size scaled up against the universe.
The moment of interaction with the beggar sparks a whole chain of imagined awfuls that winds from specific but indeterminate people–the crippled woman in the bath, the arthritic children and bored nurses–to YOUR “brief shot at the universe,” which, echoes the image of the toppled telescope. And the toppled telescope matches the defeated tone of the universe, or the way the speaker’s perceiving the world. But the poem shifts from the first person in the opening to the third, and then to the second person. The use of the you in the middle of the poem suddenly yanks the reader into the position of the defeated. It’s a bold move, but the dividends prove worthwhile for my reading because I feel like I can tap into that same emotional core that our speaker’s talking from, and when the voice suddenly seems to speak to me (though also reflexively–that’s the magic), I’m drawn in because now this voice is implicating me, almost daring me to challenge the assumption that my brief shot at the universe is gone. Who hasn’t felt like that at some point?
But then she shifts back to the repetition of the more vague, “It is,” and takes us to a somewhat disturbing image of a fish swimming through the eyes of a skull underneath some water lilies. The image of the skull underwater links back to the “sinking” in the second line of the poem. That weighted feeling that things aren’t going to go right. But it nuances that image with the sparkling goldfish like a sparkling change-purse. Aha, change-purse! Wasn’t someone just giving away a dollar? This poem’s so quiet in its mastery that only it seems simple but complicates as you investigate further.
And all of a sudden the voice of the beggar interrupts the image, and we’re yanked into the moment which occasions this poem. And this is where we first hear the cliche “beautiful soul,” in the poem. Not only does it provide a context in which that phrase is both cliche and meaningful, but it lulls us for perhaps my favorite moment of this poem: “It is as if I have tossed a postcard / of the ocean into the ocean.” Good-goddamn. If you can’t feel the helplessness and defeat in that metaphor (yes, I know it’s a simile), then you might want to check your pulse. The way the repetition of “it is” has built slowly over the poem was almost unnoticeable. That language isn’t flashy, and it breaks another bit of advice I give to my students: “avoid ‘to be’ verbs.” Usually I would advocate for stronger verbs, but here, the construction intentionally uses simpler constructions to lull us for the punch of its final use.
And then, just in case that postcard of the ocean into the ocean image shocked you so much you forgot the way she used “beautiful soul,” she’s going to use it again, so that it opens (as the title) and closes the poem. And can you find a more perfect word than “stupid” for that final line? It admits the defeat of the action, of the gesture, and it does it anyway.
When the title returns at the end, we have a completely different understanding of its context, but also the way it resonates. I’m so jealous of Kasischke for pulling this off. I wish I had thought of it/written it first. It’s so amazing, and I’m partially amazed and frustrated by how this title/phrase shouldn’t work and does. That’s part of the magic of it. Kasischke’s using this moment of defeat to create something that sparkles and stabs, and part of why it’s so amazing lies in my recognition of how difficult it is to nuance and work with cliche. Took the top of my head off with a phrase I could’ve heard from the Hallmark channel. Because she implicates not just herself in the moment, but you and me too. Now that’s skill. Hot damn.