Photo by Ahmad Odeh / Unsplash

Soma Sema

Editorials Oct 23, 2023

by Austin Segrest

Eventually, you come to a place where, independent of interest or intent, in order to proceed, you have to rewire your brain. Your responsibilities deepen. Eventually, instead of textbooks and excerpts, you learn Latin from poetry: the dead language most alive, seeing what it can get away with. You hear your future carried over the meter.

Plosser always said, you think this is hard, you should try Greek. Something about the aorist tense. So, in college, in addition to more Latin, you take Greek. It takes a minute, but you realize you’re the only student there for non-religious reasons. Still, those New Testament-translating Bible bangers are sweet. A bombshell brunette, who, you have to figure, does some backsliding on the weekend, drives a blue Pathfinder like all the girls made to break your heart. A very kind, very fair pre-med, a senior, is the best in the class, despite your Latin. An also earnest (if less bright), also beautiful longhaired country Christ-type destined to preach drives a little red truck, a beater that will run forever. You get Guthrie’s chicken strips together. The pred-med invites you to a revival—not that you know what that is. You bolt through a side-door in the auditorium during the altar call.

You learn the Greek aphorism soma sema: the body (is) the grave. You love the word-play, how one word carries another inside it, fetal, fatal. Soma is the name of a favorite drug another blue-Pathfinder-driving beauty would take and sleepily over the phone suggest you date other girls.

You transfer schools and attribute your panic attacks to the onset of madness, or the consequence of something you’ve done. You learn the term apotropaic. You write the dead letters on the whiteboard outside your dorm room: soma sema. A crush who asks to see your room declares it cold and lifeless as a tomb. You befriend a kid so lonely he knows every zip code. Or area code? The next semester he’s dead; no one says why.

Soma sema: a cryptic bluster, a charm against what can’t be controlled, the disdain an attempt to reclaim power over your body, which you’ve been stripped of by an abuser. Not that you realize it. Not that you mean to forego the fleshpots of college, the stews of the twenties, or that you won’t regret it. You labor at your translations. Graduate. Watch your mother die. There are beautiful things beyond the body.

Austin Segrest teaches poetry at Lawrence University.