How does a spirit new to the world, baffled by the family domain and its customs, but above all curious, come to discover its essence? What does any child carry into the present from ancestors whose histories have been assimilated and long forgotten? These are among the questions poet Leslie Ullman explores in her sixth, and most personal, collection, as she re-invents the various selves that make up a person and then imagines how they might answer. In the process, what at first appears to be a chronicle of a mid-century childhood through coming of age to maturity becomes an interrogation of the very nature of the soul—its origins, its purpose, its evolution in a given lifetime. To this end, the persona of Little Soul muses at the heart of the search. Introduced as a half-wild creature unbound by maleness or femaleness, tentative and weightless as “a lone firefly lacing the dusk,” Little Soul at first flounders alongside the untried Selves but eventually comes to instruct and fuse with them. Sometimes humorous and gently satirical in their depictions of a middle-class America whose values seemed unassailable for a time, these poems ultimately reconstruct a personal history as they mull over the universal burdens of self-doubt, ambition, desire, disappointment and inevitable relinquishments, and then begin to taste the pleasures of traveling light.
Who knew 21st-century soul-searching could cast such a spell? In this beguiling sequence, poet Leslie Ullman searches through the relics of her past, reassembling a private world with patience and precision. As readers, we enter it as if it were our own. Bringing ancestry, demography, philosophy, and Jungian psychology into play, Ullman summons vanished time, “seeing it afresh.” Open to any page, and “the ghosts come forward / through image, through dream, through / meandering guess. With its comic turns and keen-eyed observations, Little Soul and the Selves considers the meaning of a singular life and not only asks Who am I? but also poses the hardest question: What is the nature of a human soul?
—Jody Bolz, The Near and Far
In her poetic sequence, Little Soul and the Selves, Leslie Ullman offers a rich and rewarding commentary on the multiplicity of roles life demands of us and the undefinable, but felt, unity of consciousness that underlies them. To browse the list of poem titles alone is delicious: “Little Soul Remembers,” “Little Soul Comes Across Lines by George Seferis,” “The Selves Channel the Day the Parents Met,” “If Little Soul and the Selves Were a Rock Band….” Playfully side-stepping the perils of direct philosophical inquiry, Ullman avoids the weighty “I” of confession and turns autobiography into a series of adventures, a profound questioning of human identity and the forces that tear at it. These are supple, athletic poems, full of the thisness of the world, touching lightly and with elegance on the larger questions.
—Jean Nordhaus, Memos from the Broken World
Leslie Ullman is the author of six poetry collections and a hybrid collection of craft essays, writing exercises, and poems titled Library of Small Happiness (3: A Taos Press, 2017). A new collection based on Brian Eno’s The Oblique Strategies, titled Unruly Tree, will be published in 2024 by University of New Mexico Press. Professor Emerita at University of Texas-El Paso where she taught for 27 years and established the Bilingual MFA Program, she remains a faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. Her awards include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, two NEA fellowships and a New Mexico/Arizona Book Award for Poetry. She and her husband Erik live in Taos, New Mexico.