“ALL SOUL PARTS RETURNED/goes the moneyback guarantee”: When a New Age shamanist’s pamphlet promises to retrieve and mystically restore all the traumatized and runaway pieces missing from the client’s soul, we’re in the territory of a Bruce Beasley collection, where St. Augustine’s dialogues on the nature of the soul collide with a soul retrieval FAQ (“I don’t like my soul parts”; “My soul parts don’t like me”), in a “neurometaphysical” interrogation on the coherence or lack thereof of self and soul. “I’ve gone missing,” Beasley writes, “the way someone else/might go drinking, caroling.” In search of a God who seems “temporarily unbeholdable,” Beasley asks “Who is I/but the mass of its soul parts,” and goes seeking–in disintegrating and reassembling language–for traces of divinity amid the absurdities, soul-shrinking violence, and incoherences of contemporary America. In equal parts devout and heretical, Beasley—known for his intense hieratic soul-quest through previous award-winning books—here interrogates the spiritual condition of 21st century America with humor and despair: despair at his own cynicism, and cynicism toward his own despair.
Human life, Jung wrote, “looks exactly as if something were meant by it,” and Beasley is out to nail down just who it is that meant it, and what they mean by the words they use to say how it might come to mean. His quest takes him through “All these tatters where the soul once was, like a worm-eaten book,” as the soul parts of the book clash between faith in Catholic liturgy and ritual and the philosophical nihilism of Arthur Schopenhauer, often considered one of history’s most pessimistic thinkers, for whom the very existence of the universe seemed a grotesque mistake. (“You see there’s an Arthur Schopenhauer,/often, in my mind,/ muttering his strings// of cosmoscidal et ceteras”). Soul parts, Beasley reads on a shamanist website, “won’t put up with any shenanigans,” and soul in these poems encounters shenanigans, joys, and terrors as Beasley’s apostate contemporary Mass meets the 21st century’s condition of what in German is known as Zerrissenheit or “torn-to-pieces-hood.” Gnostic gospels collide with the Oxford Happiness Test and Buddhist treatises on emptiness, and Beasley brings both Schopenhauer and The Purpose Driven Life to bear on the horrors of the Sandy Hook massacre.
The Ordinary means both the commonplace or unremarkable and the liturgical prayers that make up the Roman Mass; in pursuit of ordinary and Ordinary Beasley excavates the holy in the banal and the banalities of the sanctimonious. Having “taken leave/of several/of my senses,” Beasley lets theological certainties go to pieces in order to restore them to a new wholeness in a postmodern spirituality where doubt and faith learn to coinhabit in one soul. All Soul Parts Returned is itself made of parts that struggle to reassemble: meditations on what faith and despair might look like, but also on the wholenesses and fragmentations of family (marriage, divorce, parenthood, and the parts of the parents that become lost soul parts of a son, the parts of ourselves inexplicably interlocked in those we love). Despair and affirmation fight it out as Beasley coaxes back together the alternately nihilistic, melancholic, and joyous mysteries of self and soul.
Beasley tears apart the souls of words (Augustine calls the departure of meaning from the word nothing less than “the departure of a soul from a torn body”) and returns them to a deeper, richer, harder-won coherence of meanings. “Come/again here, Jesus,” Beasley prays. “There’s Cosmos enough for You in this skull, there’s/plenty Chaos enough.”
“All Soul Parts Returned is a dynamic catechism-in-progress, laden with prayers, addresses, and meditations on God’s ‘pouring-apart of opposites.’ Bruce Beasley reminds us that to ‘come apart’ or ‘go missing’ is not necessarily to be lost, and his lyrics struggle movingly with limitation and loss, with familial bonds and inheritance, and with the way we can neither fully hide in nor emerge from our vocabularies. The prismatic language of these poems shimmers with a love of ‘the inchoation of words’: ‘Out of the ordinary something keeps/busting loose…’ These poems gather, return, and enlarge it.” — Mary Szybist, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry
“Great Poetry That Makes No Sense: America’s 2018 Poetry Roundup,” America: The Jesuit Review
Bruce Beasley is a recent convert to Catholicism, a faith wherein, as he wrote in an author statement, “the soul is singular and indivisible…cannot be divided.” To others, the soul has “parts.” A new age pamphlet he was once given stated that depression and feelings of emptiness were caused by parts of your soul breaking off and going to another realm called “Nonordinary reality.”
Beasley’s new, sparkling collection, All Soul Parts Returned (BOA Editions Ltd., 2017) wends its way not only through those opposing teachings, but through the deep gloom and nihilism of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, several parts of the Catholic Mass, his childhood depression, mass shootings, Black Friday, the writings of the pastor Rick Warren and the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. (I did the questionnaire online after reading this book. I was rated “somewhat unhappy.” This only made me more unhappy.)
Beasley manages to write about all these topics not snidely or “from above,” but with love, patience and groundedness because he knows he is inextricably involved in them. The poem “Reading The Purpose Driven Life, with Schopenhauer,” for instance, was not ironic and winking. He takes the popular pastor Warren, as well as the septic Schopenhauer, seriously.
Writing about something as mundane as a governmental program like Social Security, he turns it into a startling metaphor: “There’s a ‘Trust Fund’ with trillions hoarded in it/ to compensate for every yearly lack/ but, like God, no one can agree if it exists.”
This is a major book by an astounding writer. Beasley captures an age of both shamans and Catholics, where one is easily able to move from tribal ritual to postmodernism to religious tradition and back again. He gives the cold water of the Baltimore Catechism its poetic due. It may bemy favorite book on the planet now. “How is the soul like to God?” “The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die.” Have you read two better sentences this year? Beasley reminds us that great writing is great writing wherever you find it.
With All Soul Parts Returned, Bruce Beasley captures an age of both shamans and Catholics, where one is easily able to move from tribal ritual to postmodernism to religious tradition and back again.