What the Soul Misses: Andrea Gibson’s “For the Days I Stop Wanting a Body”

If you’ve ever been grievously ill or incapacitated and cursed your fate and your body, this poem is for you.

If you’ve ever suffered from a chronic disease, this poem is for you.

If you’ve ever been near death, or been with a beloved who is, and bounced back, this poem is for you.

If you’ve ever waited in vigil and beheld a loved one’s last days and breaths, this poem is for you.

If you’ve ever wondered and remained mystified by questions of mind and body, mortality and immortality, earth and the heavens, this poem is for you.

And if you’ve ever looked slightly askance or never even heard of “spoken word poetry,” this poem is for you, too.


I’ve never gone deeply into spoken word poetry, which puts much more emphasis on the performative, in-the-moment oral transmission of poetic works in a public setting rather than poems written to be read mostly by individual persons in a quiet encounter with the printed page.

Not that spoken word doesn’t have a place in the poetic world.

Nor would I say a certain amount of performative mojo isn’t a big plus in all poets’ arsenals if they are inclined toward the touch of showmanship it requires.

I wrote here last year about William Everson, probably the most powerful practitioner of poetry-as-stagecraft that I have ever come across. So I am not immune to its power and potential to spread poetry, long the poor stepchild of the literary arts, to a wider, generally more youthful public beyond the academic circles where poetry most abides.

But I am at heart and brain more a reader than listener, particularly to poetry, given the profusion of imagery it tends to pour forth and which my brain struggles mightily to process via listening without the benefit of reading along.

The annoyances of a stubbed toe and loose tooth, the mystery of the funny bone…what would the soul have been without them?

That is why I much prefer to be familiar with poets’ work and even the particular poems they might read in a public appearance, rather than go stone-cold to a reading in which I don’t know the work to be read nor even, for that matter, the poet him-her-their self.

I’m reminded of musical performances, where longtime fans might clap warmly and sing along with many songs but emit an ocean-like roar at the first note or two of a particular, dear-to-their-heart favorite.

The difference with music is that we almost always hear it sung by the artist before we see, if ever, the lyrics printed on a page.

The reverse is usually true with poetry, unless our consumption is limited to spoken word performances.

That explains the experience poetry readers sometimes have of finally hearing a poet live or via You Tube audio and responding, “Wait, that’s not how that poem sounds!” Turns out our own reading most always differs from the poet’s, locked into our nervous system with its own cadences, emphases and tonality that may be substantially different—and even superior—to the poet’s own.

Perhaps the poet is simply introverted—which is a good bet, in general—and thus reads in a monotone, lacking the kind of theatrical flair that makes their soaring lyricism on a page shine equally bright from a stage.

This is rarely a problem with music—nor its close cousin of spoken word poetry.

It’s even less of a problem with the spoken word poetry of Andrea Gibson, who pulls off the trick of authoring poems that soar right off the printed page, but which probably achieve an even more passionate, heart-splayed-out-for-all-to-see power on stage, where the poet probes and excavates deep emotion and ultimate reconciliation with the strange beauty of the world through its every toss and turn.


Andrea Gibson, born in Maine, a Boulder, CO resident since 1999


It seems almost ridiculous—half dark cosmic joke and the other half cosmic gift—that a poet with the ravenous appetite for life that Gibson tries to feed with their every word would be handed two grave illnesses back to back. First came chronic Lyme disease, diagnosed in 2012 but suffered from—and largely disbelieved about—for many years before.

Then came ovarian cancer in 2021, with dark prognoses that grew brighter for a while and darker again early last month with news of a recurrence. Turning 48 in a few weeks, Gibson, who identifies as non-binary they/ them/theirs (and also goes by Andrew, among other monikers), may live on a knife’s edge with respect to their diseases, but to listen and read their poetry pre-mortal illness is to know that both sides of that edge have always undergirded their work.

The poem featured here—“For the Days I Stop Wanting a Body”—preceded Gibson’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, having seen print in the 2018 volume, “Lord of the Butterflies.” But it was no doubt informed by the poet’s emotionally and physically exhausting battle with Lyme, along with a hard-won poetic inclination (made all the more urgent since their cancer diagnosis) to plunge into places of darkness, confusion and fear.

But rather than jump on a crowded bandwagon citing the body’s betrayal and clinging to the immortality of the soul, Gibson turns that conventional duality upside down with an image of the soul lost and grieving without the body that has served it so nobly (though not without its sufferings).

How has the body done this?

Gibson warms to the idea by the second line, and from there on we get a stirring collection of images from a body’s life.

Tiny odes to the simple preciousness of hands, the throat-closing terrors of reading aloud in a classroom, the annoyances of a stubbed toe and loose tooth, the mystery of the funny bone, which truly is “funny” in the sense of its surpassing strangeness, no matter how many times we whack it throughout life.

A lisp, a stutter, a limp, even the weightlessness of a falling eyelash—what would the soul have been without them? How could it not miss these minutiae of a life lived here, on terra firma, suffused in blood, heat, joy and grief, along with the wrinkles that form “the smile’s autograph.”

Sex, hunger, emptiness and rage are here too, along with fevers, wheelchairs and “legs creaking up the stairs.”

All of it noted, honored, even as the body departs and decays, the soul mourning its loss.

While it’s here, though, the body—Gibson’s body—commands: “Erase every scripture that doesn’t have a pulse.”

Is there a more urgent appeal anywhere to pay attention—the closest possible attention—to this mortal, actionable sphere, home to bodies of nearly every imaginable size and hue, consciousness and color, function and purpose, human bodies perhaps most mysterious and wide-ranging of all?

The poem text down below runs 79 lines, and requires 4 minutes and 9 seconds for Gibson to read. (Maybe less for you, though Gibson isn’t exactly poking along here…) So listen or read in either order, but if you’re pressed for time, go with one or the other and then give a listen to “Maga Hat in the Chemo Room” down below. It may blow whatever hat you decided to wear today right off the top of your head.


                            FOR THE DAYS I STOP WANTING A BODY

Imagine when a human dies the soul misses the body
Actually grieves the loss of its hands
And all they could hold
Misses the throat closing shy
Reading out loud on the first day of school

Imagine the soul misses the stubbed toe
The loose tooth
The funny bone
The soul still asks
“Why does the funny bone do that?
It’s just weird.”

Imagine the soul misses the thirsty garden cheeks
Watered by grief
Misses how the body could sleep through a dream
What else can sleep through a dream
What else can laugh
What else can wrinkle the smile’s autograph

Imagine the soul misses each falling eyelash
Waiting to be wished
Misses the wrist screaming away the blade
The soul misses the lisp
The stutter
The limp
The soul misses the holy bruise
Blue from that army of blood rushing to the wound’s side
When a human dies
The soul searches the universe for something blushing
Something shaking in the cold
Something that scars
Sweeps the universe for patience worn thin
The last nerve fighting for its life
The voice box aching to be heard

The soul misses the way the body would hold another body
And not be two bodies but one pleading God doubled in grace
The soul misses how the mind told the body
“You have fallen from grace.”
And the body said, “Erase every scripture that doesn’t have a pulse
There isn’t a single page in the Bible that can wince
That can clumsy
That can freckle
That can hunger.

Imagine the soul misses hunger
The fist that was never taught to curl, curls
The teeth that were never taught to clench, clench
The body that was never taught to make love, makes love
Like a hungry ghost digging its way out of the grave
The soul misses the un-forever of old age
The skin that no longer fits
The soul misses every single day the body was sick
The now it forced
The here it built from the fever
Fever is how the body prays
How it burns and begs for another average day

The soul misses the legs creaking up the stairs
Misses the fear that climbed up the vocal chords
To curse the wheelchair
The soul misses what the body could not let go
What else could hold on that tightly to everything
What else could hear the chain of a swing set and fall to its knees
What else could touch a screen door and taste lemonade
What else could come back from a war and not come back
But still try to live
Still try to lullaby

When a human dies the soul moves through the universe
Trying to describe how a body trembles when it’s lost
Softens when it’s safe
How a wound would heal given nothing but time

Do you understand
Nothing in space can imagine it
No comet
No nebula
No ray of light can fathom the landscape of awe
The heat of shame
The fingertips pulling the first grey hair
And throwing it away
“I can’t imagine it.
The stars say
“Tell us again about goosebumps.
Tell us again about pain.”



Big thanks to poet Alison Jarvis, whose poem, “Sky, River” was discussed here, for alerting me to Andrea Gibson. 

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for occasional 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Poetic rose artwork by Eddi van W., Germany  https://www.flickr.com/photos/spiritual_marketplace/

Gibson portrait from the poet’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AndreaGibsonPoetry 

10 comments to What the Soul Misses: Andrea Gibson’s “For the Days I Stop Wanting a Body”

  • Linton  says:

    Thank you Andrew! This is what I needed today, though I didn’t know it until I listened to her and her passion. It’s good to reminded that when we are hurt there is always the possibility, the choice to feel joy in the possibility to heal, the work, wanting and waiting of return to health.

  • Loren Webster  says:

    Look up the movie “In a Dark Time” about Theodore Roethke on YouTube. He definitely meant for his poetry to be heard, not just read.

  • Al  says:

    Thank you for this, Andrew. What a worthy challenge to embrace the pain and hardship in our lives. The older I get the more accepting I’ve become that these go hand in hand with some of our most valuable experiences. They are signs of life.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    I know that feeling of a certain reading being a timely tonic, Linton! Very glad this filled that role for you.

    Thanks, Loren, have been meaning for a long time to track that Roethke piece down; I appreciate the prompt. Not surprising at all he was a fan of oral poetry; his stuff just begs to be heard and tapped along to. Love everything about his cadences—the word “mellifluous” comes to mind. Conversely, this post put me in mind of Eliot, whose own oral presentation sounded like a dead man reading, just awful. (Though maybe considering the subject matter—”The Wasteland,” “The Hollow Men”—he was simply reading to his source material…)

    Al, you are right, simple as that. I don’t discount the work of the positive psychologists at all—only those who interpret them, wrongly, I think, to mean hurrying all thoughts of pain and hardship out the door. Suffering is the very dirt out of which flowers of contentment and wisdom bloom. Thanks for checking in here!

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Hi Andrew. Your column brought back a teenage memory of hearing James Dickey recite “Falling” on a radio program. Say what you will about the piece (and, apparently, many have), my hearing him speak the words left a lifelong impression.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Just read through a bit more than half of this poem, which I had been unfamiliar with though I have Dickey on my shelf, and had to take a pause, one word echoing through my mind: “JESUS!” So then I snagged the volume, and sure enough, there it is, the very last offering, the sign-off, pages 293-299. I see we can also hear him read it on You Tube (it requires 15 minutes), and also, improbable as it seems, a group called “Plowboys” set it to music four years ago (it’s gotten 588 views; I think I prefer Dickey reading…).

      Zero surprise it stayed with you: the subject matter is amazing, his treatment of it just as much so—something along the lines of “the terrible majesty of art.” Thanks a ton for the alert, and RIP to the poor stewardess, immortalized in this poem like no one, ever…

      • Robby Miller  says:

        Do some more searching and you’ll find quite the backstory about her.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    About twenty years ago I purchased a 3 audio CD “Poetry Speaks” with an accompanying book which has the major English-speaking 20th century poets reading their own works. However, there is one 19th century recording (Tennyson reciting a bit from his “Charge of the Light Brigade”). It’s interesting to hear both the good and bad readings by these poets. Since I had two bouts with cancer, it hit home. Thanks for this poem.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      This is such an interesting question, Robert, about poets reading their own works. I’m going to refrain from saying much more here because it has me thinking not only about poetry, but other arts as well, and I may try to work through some of my thoughts in a future post. Meanwhile, happy to have spread the wealth of this poem and poet to you.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Arriving late to this post – and WoW!! The MAGA hat poem felt like it had been written (though with a different level of intensity) by my, and your, dear friend Mary. Very much so. Thank you.

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