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On the Soul

by Jennifer Chang

          after Plato's Phaedo

Older now, I open the book
          without fear. My father,
in the other room, restarts

          the electric kettle. And what
is there to fear? Sudden temper,
          a kind of brute exhale

that could belong to anything,
          anyone, until the water boils.
It boils as the self can, overheating

          in talk. In the prison, an old man
awaits the poison that will end his life
          by reminding the listening crowd

that to practice philosophy
          is to practice death, reasoning
that he has always been

          already dying,
the soul’s incipient flight        aloft in syntax.
          No tea for me, thanks,

I call out to a voice I still struggle
          to describe—
quixotic, rash, different

          every time. In anger, my mother’s name
becomes two huffs of air;
          beseeching, his voice whines,

deflating like a piteous balloon.
          Today I look for mention of the wife,
“Xanthippe—you know her—”

          the sole mention in all of Plato,
and then she’s “led away
          lamenting and beating her breast.”

Little is known beyond her name—
          “yellow horses,” at root—
and her reputation. Centuries later,

          she’s still beating her chest, a figure
of comparison for Shakespeare’s Katherine
          who’s “cursed and shrewd

as Socrates’s Xanthippe,” or spelled
                    erroneously with a Z by Poe.
Perhaps the wife of any notorious man is

          always merely a rumor,          and here she is, counterpoint
to reason. Arguing with her,
          Socrates claimed, sharpened

his mind, made him more tolerant
          of the most ill-tempered among us. Good
for philosophy.          Does he mean

          a bad wife prepares one for a good death?
What about a bad husband?
                                          Alive, my father is drinking steam

out of a blue mug. Alive, he asks me
                    what I’m reading. An old book from school.
          He laughs and with his free hand      slaps away

          the air between us.
It’s the week before spring.
                                          What do you call those purple things? he asks.

Crocuses,      I say.   An early sign the year’s turning
          again.            How to spell?               Crocuses
don’t grow where I live now,

          far from my father and my mother,
who no longer live together. Alive,
          he is a chain of questions, a deluge

of questions, a flotilla, a flock,
          aflutter with                 questions.      Outside,
it begins to snow. Our days

          are abundant with nonsense,
the winter that keeps pretending
          to end. Miles away, my mother holds

her own hot cup and considers
          this afternoon. She has never been cold
and has much to say about

          the current state of the world;
like the snow, she chooses to stay quiet
          after a lifetime of noise. To live

in constant quarrel is one way
          to write poems,             or it’s one way
marriage becomes hearth

          to rhetoric.      But what words,
                                                       what factious discourse,
          unabated, made his mind

a kind of pane to odd and cloudless
          light? I’m not interested in union,
exactly, but why we think

                                             we know what we know,
why we make law
          of what we deem reason…

Whose reason? My father has lost
          his phone again, and I can hear him
opening and closing doors

          around his small house,
where he lives alone,
                                where the snow grows so quiet

my mother is no longer even possible.
          In the story she tells,
he was the last young man left in Taipei.

          In the story he tells, she laughed at whatever he’d say.
For now, he cannot call her,
                    though he wants her back.

Somewhere I remember reading that
          in David’s great painting of that scene
he began a sketch of her,

          weeping at the top of the stairs,
leaving her husband behind
          with his cup of hemlock,

and then with a few pale strokes
          blotted her out again.
When I look at reproductions of The Death

          of Socrates, I look at that empty spot
and think I see a trace
                                  of her, a history kept at home—

flightless, obdurate, not the soul, and yet not
          not the soul,                 she is there
          perhaps, if what I read was true,          if, indeed, I read it at all.

Reading Plato in college yielded not an intelligent response in me but a sense that whoever spoke the most claimed our attention. In Plato’s dialogues, that position of authority is held by Socrates, of course, and while I could not then fully grasp his definitions of justice or love, I recognized the power of his charisma. He spoke the most by way of persistent inquiry; always another question would emerge, always a sly refutation that made plain the flaws in another man’s thought process. I was reminded of my father, who, throughout my childhood, spoke the most, asking me questions unceasingly, until worn down, I had to walk away.

For some reason, in the early days of lockdown, I turned to Plato, as if in somehow better understanding the dialogues I could comprehend and thus disarm my daily despair. Instead, I found myself thinking about power and patriarchy. This was, to my surprise, a reflection of our historical moment. That I felt powerless was not only the consequence of living through a pandemic: it was the intrinsic condition of my life as a woman of color. And so, reading Plato, following Socrates’s cascading arguments, I found myself writing about my father. His presence overwhelmed our family, as if he were the sole narrator. As if he were the sole character. I don’t mean to sound cruel, but it’s his voice that I hear in every room of my memory. He isn’t a philosopher, though he is a philosopher’s son, and he isn’t wise, exactly, though he has a history unto himself, a Rise-and-Fall-of-the-Roman-Empire kind of thing. I began writing poems that playfully—or recklessly—conflate my father and Socrates. One is a father who frustrates his audience, the other a purported father of reason. What was the difference?

I wrote these poems almost by accident. At my desk, what emerged line by line was a composite dialogue— a dialogue with my father, a dialogue with my younger student self, and a dialogue with the amorphous force that is power. None of these were dialogues I could have in real life. Finishing a draft felt like snapping out of a trance; it felt nothing like writing a poem. The writing process for “On the Soul” was similarly accidental, except I had been pursuing the subject matter for years with little to show for it. Socrates had a wife named Xanthippe. In all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues she is mentioned once. In Phaedo, she is described as weeping so excessively that she must be removed from the prison before her husband submits to his death sentence, a cup of hemlock. The other mention of Xanthippe is more obscure. In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates attributes his gift for reasoning to having a quarrelsome, cantankerous wife. He compares it to horsemanship: a docile horse does not make a good horseman, he argues. Here, too, she exists secondhand in the voices of men, and in the form of a beast. Nowhere does she materialize as a person with a voice of her own.

How does one write a poem out of so little? I have many drafts that make much of this little, but none were what I hoped for, which was maybe a resurrection. Certainly, a reclamation. Xanthippe’s is a story of absence, erasure, loss, and it is incidental to the story that history remembers and keeps retelling. In this, hers is a familiar story, one that I see again and again in the long history of women. Perhaps, then, it was no accident that in writing about Xanthippe I found myself writing about my mother, whose own story of marriage to a garrulous man resembles Xanthippe’s just enough to spark my imagination.

In the poem, my speaker self is afire in thought, trying to read Phaedo as my father prattles on, and my mother, too, dwells pensively in her own corner, where she “considers the afternoon.” Of course, I don’t know what my mother is thinking, as none of us ever knew what Xanthippe was thinking about her marriage to Socrates or anything else. What I discovered was that there’s comfort in existing in the unspoken, the vast silence at the edges of my father’s unceasing chatter—a dialogue that none of us chose to participate in, and yet it became our life as a family. More so than comfort, there’s freedom in that vast silence, which contains both the unimaginable and the not yet imagined, which is also the boundless domain of many a woman’s life.

Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, which received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, serves as poetry editor of New England Review, and teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. Her third book of poems, An Authentic Life, is forthcoming in 2024.