De Anima

John Burnside

My son is learning insects
– woodlouse
bee
a line of ants
a lone fritillary.
He finds them on a flagstone or a leaf
and quizzes them
the start of dialogue and so

commencement of the soul’s
unfolding
self-invention
in a world
that shifts and turns
but really has no end

and surely
what we mean by soul
is something no anatomist could find:
a total sum of movement and exchange
how winter starts
along an empty street
the first snow flaring
dark into the light
a parents’ conversation overheard
between the gold of wireless
and the green
of solstice
or the lamp I used to see
across the valley
thirty years ago
defined by darkness
and defining night.

The old anatomists would place the soul
in all the likely places
ventricle
and cerebellum
optic thalamus
and spinal cord

but surely it’s more dialogue
than gland
something that grows
by being in the world
and not
pineal or hippocampus
that salt-faring spirit
floating in the dark
beneath the skull.

My son is learning insects
ladybird
and beetle
Painted Lady
may or dragonfly
and
watching
I think of how the mind evolves
one meeting at a time
spider
and fly
the lizard stage where everything is tuned
to warmth
the moonlit phase
a month
of songbirds
in this house amid the fields
we’ve rented for a summer
how the sounds
and tastes go down like script
unmemorised
and not to be forgotten
this is soul

just as a single evening
years ago
is so much what I am:
crossing a field
late in the gloaming
summer
and a bird
I didn’t know
its feathers dipped in red
around the throat and chest
its hollow song
so much an answer to the self I was
I walked out
on the far side of the light
uncertain
plundered
given up for lost.