Soul Feast

Poetry review – SOUL FEAST: Stuart Henson browses a Bloodaxe anthology of poems offering hope and light


Soul Feast
Edited by Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce
ISBN 978-1-78037-706-3
158pp  £12.00/$17.95

‘Why don’t people read poetry these days?’ It’s a question that’s often mooted at readings, and a conundrum that poetry editors have been grappling with for years. The answers, of course, are complex—ranging from ‘Actually, they do.’ to ‘They won’t if they don’t see poetry as relevant to their own lives.’ Some serious-minded publishing houses have tried to resolve it by taking on unashamedly populist poets and tying themselves up in knots explaining how their ‘best sellers’ will bring in a new audience and lead on to more sales from the their lists in general. At Bloodaxe, Neil Astley has set a determined, and very successful, middle course with his ‘flagship’ anthologies—the perennial Staying Alive quartet, and themed collections like 2007’s Earth Shattering (eco poems) and the engaging In Person that came out a year later, with a disc of video readings filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce.

The secret is not just well-chosen content but also canny packaging and marketing. All these anthologies have very attractive covers, and in the case of the Staying Alive series some wide-ranging and eye-catching blurb-writers. Soul Feast is no exception to the rule that marketing has to press the right buttons. Its subtitle, ‘Nourishing Poems of Hope and Light’ will doubtless help it leap off the shelves in Waterstones. Following the ‘word-of-mouth’ success of its predecessor, Soul Food, here are ‘more voices of hope and healing, of love and tolerance, kindness and compassion, sanity and solace’ to ‘help sustain our search for meaning in times of spiritual starvation’.

No pressure, then!

Sensibly, I think, the editors forego the indulgence of an introduction, confining themselves to short biographical vignettes of the poets alongside the index at the back. Cover-blurb apart, they want the poets to do the talking. The poems are grouped loosely—as they were in Soul Food—under section headings: ‘Journeys’, ‘Life on Earth’, ‘All Together Now’… One of the ways that an anthology like this can operate is to juxtapose. It’s rather like sorting pebbles on a beach—placing them side-by-side on a rock. So Kathleen Ossip washes up next to Dennis O’Driscoll in the section titled ‘Soul Search’. It’s interesting to compare their perspectives—the Godhead internal or external, female or male, individual or immanent:

I made a God.  I called her Grace.
I said my prayers.  I called them pleasure.
Pleasure her way to teach me pleasure.
Pleasure a stream and I a fish.
God is dead to the world.
But he still keeps up
appearances. Day after
day he sets out his stall.
Today his special is

a sun-melt served on
a fragrant bed of
moist cut-grass; yesterday,
a misty-eyed moon,

a blister pack of stars.

Unlike its predecessor, Soul Feast is priced in pounds sterling and dollars, though both books are genuinely transatlantic—if not worldwide—in their selection of poets, and curiously, after a while, I found, you can begin to identify a poet you’ve not previously discovered as American: Ossip, Lucie Brock-Boido, John Koethe, Linda Pastan, Maya C. Popa… Use of the first person, and the combining of the quotidian with a kind of philosophical directness often unites them and perhaps distinguishes them from their European and Eastern counterparts, though as soon as you start making such distinctions they crumble in the face of the individuality of the voices. Take these two openings for example:

Suddenly it was clear to me –
I was something I hadn’t been before.
It was as if the animal part of my being
had reached some kind of maturity that gave it
authority, and had begun to use it.


It’s me
This time I’m a wren.

Last time I
was the first
white sap.

Once more, they sit side by side in the anthology, and each in its own way enacts a parable of the self and its anima. The first is Chase Twichell, the second is from Mona Arshi’s “Little Prayer”. Twichell’s Zen thinking owes as much to her Buddhist background as to the American mainstream, and either poet could be speaking of the animate world from almost anywhere within it.

Both Soul Feast and Soul Food are committed to bringing poets in translation to our attention and there are some fine poems in this volume by better-known figures such as Tomas Tranströmer and Marin Sorescu, as well as gems by poets that I at least hadn’t come across before. “Prayer”, for instance, by the twentieth century Italian Giorgio Caproni (translated by Peter Sirr) which begins:

Go lightly, soul, go
to Livorno
with flickering
candle, at night time
and look around
and if you have time
search high and low,
let me know
if by any chance
Anna Picchi
is among the living still.

This haunting elegy for the poet’s mother is worth the cover-price alone, and it’s an illustration of the way the anthology needs to be taken slowly—allowing each poem its time to resonate. Another of the book’s new translated poets is the Korean Jeong Ho-seung, and he has his own view of the art. ‘Everyone is a poet… I am writing the poems that other people should have written. Readers will be able to find their own lives in these poems.’ Well, we may not all have a temple at the end of our street, but we have seen the rain on a spider’s web.

Early one morning
as I was walking up the road to Baekdam-sa Temple,
all the tears I have ever shed in life were hanging
on the spiders’ webs strung from branch to branch.
One great spider,
who’d been approaching in a hurry, eager to gobble up
     my tears,
was now, hands joined
in the morning sunlight,
saying grace.
                              (Jeong Ho-seung, trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé & Susan Hwang)

The international flavour of this collection can sometimes be taken literally, with English-language writers of different backgrounds offering the taste of pomegranates (Imtiaz Dharkar) or ‘homemade mamool cookies – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts’ (Naomi Shihab Nye). And it’s not all too deadly serious either. The refreshingly whimsical John McCullough, whose ‘head is a meteorite / falling horizontally’ whose legs are ‘a tall calamity / on the loose, / chaotic as escaped giraffes’, stumbles into a market stall and demolishes ‘its parsnip museum’, creating ‘an everywhere of celery’.

There are fewer pre-20th Century ‘greats’ in Soul Feast than in Soul Food but poets of an older generation like May Swenson and Rosemary Tonks rub shoulders with relative youngsters like Jericho Brown and Mary Jean Chan, and naturally enough there’s a fair sprinkling of Bloodaxe Poets: Chen Chen, Jane Clarke, Jane Hirshfield, Brendan Kennelly… There are a couple of poems that extol the value of warm socks and several with titles like ‘Wrinkly Lady Dancer’ and ‘homage to my hips’, but Soul Feast generally avoids slipping into wokedom or airing too much protesting underwear in public. The tone is often wry, even acerbic, as in Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing”:

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
When someone recognises you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Inevitably, in a review of this length there’s not time enough to do more than pick out a sample of what’s to be savoured from a spread like Soul Feast. As Jack Gilbert puts it in “A Brief for the Defense”, ‘We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment.’ And there’s a great deal to enjoy—Treasures like Andrew Houwen and Peter Robinson’s hitherto unpublished translations of Noriko Ibaragi’s, ironic, self-critical “When I Was at My Most Beautiful”, or Boris Novak’s spare, wise “Decisions: II”:

Between two words
choose the quieter one.

Between word and silence
choose listening.

Between two books
choose the dustier one.

Between the earth and the sky
choose a bird.

There’s been a fashion of late for selling poetry to a more general public in the guise of therapy. Anthologies like The Poetry Pharmacy and 100 Poems to See You Through offer solace, advice, encouragement—and are no less worthwhile for that. But to sum it up: if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t read poetry, this might be as good a place to start—and if you do (more likely I think, given the context) it’s not a bad place to leap off from once again. In the end, the proof of a Soul Feast has to be in the eating, and I’ve got to admit that, even for an old cynic like me, the whole experience of sitting down and partaking was actually, well… ‘nourishing’.