Airing the Cultural Laundry: Laura Baxter’s “Take Care of Your Soul—It’s Flapping in the Breeze”

From bies on Flickr

Anthology Poet Highlight 32/82: Laura Nielson Baxter, “Take Care of Your Soul—It’s Flapping in the Breeze

“Take Care” is an exercise in absurdity. I mean, a neighbor airing his soul on a clothesline like recently washed laundry then leaving it to dry for a few decades? How absurd! But this premise hasn’t been pushed to absurdity just for absurdity’s sake. This is poetry, after all, the realm of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole—a place where language (itself a realm of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche) is pushed to its limits. A place where one image, concept, or any part thereof stands in for another image, concept, or part thereof. A place where not everything should be taken at face value.

As in the realm of piety, where not every display of righteousness should be taken at face value. Consider the Pharisees, for instance, those make-sure-others-see-me-praying-on-the-street corner “saints” whom Christ chided with a striking simile: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (ref). In “Take Care,” the poet tweaks and updates this comparison, making it less macabre, more suburban Utah (the poet’s home and the setting of many of her poems), where overt displays of Mormon piety can border on the Pharasaic and are often rewarded in the Latter-day Saint social structure wherein the degree of one’s faith is often judged in acts of service performed, motivations and actual righteousness notwithstanding. I think, for example, of a former Church leader in my hometown who was so busy serving and gaining social status and praise in the Church and his local community that he sorely neglected his wife and kids to the point where his wife finally asked for a divorce. Or another well-loved leader who cheated on his wife with a married woman he was counseling. Or a father who sexually abused his step-daughter, all the while “honoring” his position in the church. Or apparently-devoted, marriage-covenant-honoring husbands whose late-night pornography addictions and untempered lust turn into covert flirtations—and beyond—with co-workers. 

While such uncleanness may be the exception and the extremity in a religion that preaches the sanctity of familial bonds and among a people who strive to practice and to embody that sanctity in their daily lives because, well, as we’re fond of repeating, “no other success can compensate for failure in the home,” such hypocrisies are also, to put it simply, dangerous. Laura observes the danger embodied in such acts of hypocrisy—and so moves to air Mormonism’s cultural laundry—when she says her neighbor’s “hung” “soul” is “like a warning sign: / ‘Beware of Dog’ / but slightly more dangerous because souls are involved.” And not just the “abandoned soul” of this “[v]icious,” “crafty and elusive man” whose sins we don’t know, save his hypocrisy, which, paradoxically with his piety, is couched in metaphor and on public display day after day, year after year, decade after decade. But also the souls of those who fail to see and are taken in by his pretension and lack of integrity. To see him as he is, then, is to see him “Un-souled,” as the poet sees him. And in the Mormon cosmology, which posits that the spirit and the body constitute the soul and that the soul is redeemed through Christ’s atonement, this suggests that the poet’s pious neighbor has denied himself the physical and spiritual redemption offered in mortality and beyond only in an abiding relationship with and through emulation of Christ. He is thus ultimately not at one with God, with his neighbors, with himself. 

Maybe, then, as the poem’s final stanza suggests, someone should remind him (and the culture that has enabled his hypocrisy) that he’s “forgotten” something—“the weightier matters of the law,” perhaps: judgment, mercy, faith. And that in so doing he’s hung himself out to dry and that, by virtue of his denial of the atonement, he’s thus crucified Christ afresh. But who should do the reminding? Mormon culture’s poet-seers?

Or is my reading just a little too absurd?