620: Egrets

620: Egrets

620: Egrets


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

The problem of the soul…oh, what fun! We poets, in case you haven’t noticed, love to try our hand at figuring out what the soul is, where it is, where it goes when we die, how we can tap into it, how we can call on the soul?

For a long time I had trouble with the word soul, as if the idea of it belonged only to those grand and gaudy church domes and golden cathedrals that seemed more interested in saving money than saving what they called souls.

Talking about the soul is almost as hard as talking about the mind. Where is the mind? Can you point to it? And is it different from the brain? When we talk about the soul, we start to talk about the essence of a human being or an animal, some part of a being that is immortal, that is beyond the body, the flesh, and the bone. And yet, it remains an abstraction, something we cannot point to and say, “That, that is a soul.” This conundrum is one for the ages.

The Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” This seems clear enough. The soul is the part of you that you cannot name. One of the reasons I love the obsession that writers have with the soul is that their interest is not confined to what happens to the soul after you die. Rather, writers seem to be interested in what the soul is doing right now. Can the soul have likes or dislikes, coffee or tea, can one soul connect to another in what is called a soul mate? Is our soul only alive in relation to others, in community with nature, with something larger?

Perhaps all the best questions are the ones without an answer. But one thing that does seem to be true is that in order to discuss the soul, we are often putting it up against something else. The soul’s struggle for freedom, for love, for oneness, for healing. We are defensive and protective of our soul, because it is ours. The self underneath the self, the place that is beyond the ego and its desires. The soul may not be pure, but it might not be as muddled by today’s constant concerns as the mind.

In today’s deeply resonant poem, we watch as the speaker searches for what might be the soul and discovers something alive in his connection with the animals.

by Kevin Young

Some say beauty
                  may be the egret
in the field

who follows after
                  the cows
sensing slaughter—

but I believe
                  the soul is neither
air nor water, not

this winged thing
                  nor the cattle
who moan

to make themselves
Instead, the horses

standing almost fifteen
                  hands high—
like regret they come

most the time
                  when called.
Hungry, the greys eat 

from your palm,
their surprising

plum-dark tongues
                  flashing quick
& rough as a match—

striking your hand,
                  your arm, startled
into flame.

"Egrets" by Kevin Young from STONES by Kevin Young copyright © 2021 Kevin Young. Used by permission of Penguin Random House.