The Last Poem I Loved: “Seele im Raum” by Randall Jarrell


Well, hello there, Randall Jarrell. Where you been all my life? And how did you get a real live eland up into a poem? An eland! It came out of the poem and stared at me. I stroked its hot neck, so similar to the neck of a horse. I cried. Here’s the start of the poem:

It sat between my husband and my children.
A place was set for it—a plate of greens.
It had been there: I had seen it
But not somehow—but this was like a dream—
Not seen it so that I knew I saw it.
It was as if I could not know I saw it
Because I had never once in all my life
Not seen it. It was an eland.
An eland!

So why was I crying? I read the poem through twice and wept wrenchingly but in complete bewilderment. What does this poem mean? I guess there is something sitting with me at the table? (Okay, the speaker’s table, but I’m taking this poem real personally.) And the table, um, is my life? I don’t know. That sounds dumb when I say it. But what about when Randall Jarrell says it? Do you trust a person more when he has so many double letters in his name? I do. I plugged the title into Google Translator, who told me it means “soul in the room” in German. This made me cry again. I did some more research just now and it really means “soul in space,” which doesn’t make me cry at all. “Soul in the room” seems so much more personal. I prefer it. I can see an eland sitting on a couch or else by the bedside of a dying person. Not in a corny way.

I have known, when they said nothing,
That it did not exist. If they had heard
They could not have been silent. And yet they heard;
Heard many times what I have spoken
When it could no longer speak, but only breathe—
When I could no longer speak, but only breathe.

My life is ordinary. Or else I’m imagining the ordinary life and I’m a crazy person. Or else I’m dying and the life I lived is coming back to me like a dream, like a living creature I don’t ever remember seeing or not seeing. It didn’t talk but it talked. It breathed and so did I. Did I see such a creature leave the room when my dad died? Did I know my grandmother was wrestling with one as she suffered through those last couple years with dementia? Did I know people have invisible/visible elands hanging around?

This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either—I cannot do both.

Did I ever suspect the eland I didn’t know was my soul, never really seen although it sat right next to me with a fancy place setting? Did I ever suspect it was gone for a while, that someone took it away? Yes. I have suspected those things. I sometimes say my soul checked out for a few years and that when it came back, it came back like a crow, spreading disaster. I actually never say those things, but they sound cool. And my soul was never really gone, of course. And also, I don’t have a soul. I’m an atheist. And if I did have a soul and if it was gone, I’m the one who drove it away. I can’t pin that tail on another donkey or eland.

Sent me cards lilac-branches, mourning
As I had mourned—
and I was standing
By a grave in flowers, by dyed rolls of turf,
And a canvas marquee the last brown of earth.

Okay, the truth is that my soul was gone for awhile. I was living with someone and I couldn’t admit to myself I was miserable and bored. My eland tried to tell me it was concerned: “Listen to me, you are spending certain weekends in bed crying and then saying you’re fine; you’re not fine.” And I was like “Go away and shut up, I want to watch House Hunters International again.” And then after I got dumped, the eland came back and was all like “Dude, why are you crying so much? You weren’t happy with that guy. You just had a bad childhood and you can’t let go of things. Man up. ” My eland was being kind of a dick, to be honest. But anyway, a bunch of other terrible stuff happened — two close family members died and one was given electroshock therapy (did you even know doctors still do electroshock therapy? It is for severe depression.). And I had a couple ailments that weren’t going to kill me, but definitely bummed me out. At that point, my eland told me to just write off 2010 and take some time to get myself together, which I appreciated. We’ve been pretty good friends ever since then. Anyway, it’s all very confusing:

To be at all is to be wrong.
Being is being old
And saying, almost comfortably, across a table
from what I don’t know—
in a voice
Rich with a kind of longing satisfaction:
“To own an eland! That’s what I call life!”

My recommendation? Go here to read the whole poem. Read it through twice and cry really hard.

Jen Bingham is a writer and editor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Punchnel’s, and Nerve Cowboy. You can follow her on Twitter @jen_fu. More from this author →