The subtitle of this unusual and stimulating collection is “nourishing poems for starved minds”. I think it lives up to its billing.
Soul Food is divided into 9 sections which are loosely grouped by idea—I hate the word theme: it’s so reductive and GSCE English and I refuse to use it!—so that we have, for example, ‘the journey’, ‘knowing yourself’, ‘carpe diem’ and ‘the bud stands for all things’. As the book’s title and the section titles suggest, this collection takes the inner life seriously. It draws on all sorts of spiritual traditions and secular reflections, offering a refreshing variety of well-known and less-often-encountered texts which reflect on the soul’s journey and the delights and devastations of the human experience. Rumi sits alongside Chuang-Tzu, Kabir next to Rilke, and Wendell Berry shares space with Anna Akhmatova. The reliable ecstasy of Mary Oliver is there; there’s Frost, Thich Nhat Hanh, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Fleur Adcock, Denise Levertov… The great and the good are here, along with those who deserve to be better-known than they are.
With such a heterogeneous roll-call of poets represented, and with care taken in the curation and arrangements of the texts, Soul Food has something for most moods—the joyous, the fearful, the weary, the grieving, the despairing, the yearning, the hopeful. That there is such an emotional range represented is in itself very nourishing. Even more than that, however, I feel fed by the fact that Soul Food has such a lot to say about wonder: about what it is to experience life in that state of openness, of willingness to rejoice. The familiar excerpt from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence is one of the two pieces which heads the whole collection, and suggests the wonder-ful (in the proper sense of the word) mood of the whole:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Yes, please. (With apologies to George Herbert): Sit down, and taste this meat.