You Are What You Read: Soul Food


Alice Manning on why she keeps coming back to this poetry anthology

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Image by Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2007

By Alice Manning

Soul Food is a poetry anthology published by Bloodaxe Books in 2007. I first came across it as a Christmas present five years ago. Part of a recent trend for self-help poetry, the anthology draws together poets from antiquity to the present day in such a way that the common theme of humanity is highlighted and celebrated throughout.

The magic of the collection lies in its diverse yet universal appeal, with a wide range of countries, original languages and time periods. It is subdivided into chapters with universal themes, with “Knowing Yourself”, “What Prayer?”, “Inner Light” being a few examples. The editors skilfully order the poems to imply a kind of journey in the book itself, replicating the passing of time.

For instance, one chapter sees Wisława Syzmborska write (translated) in “Four A.M.” of it being an ‘Empty hour. / Hollow. Vain’, whilst later on the same page, Fleur Adcock clarifies ‘there are worse things / than not being able to sleep […] It is 5 A.M.’ Throughout the book, therefore, there is a kind of divine logic attributed to poetry that evades religious comparison.

This book has become a kind of Bible to me; a guide for living when I’m feeling lost. I keep coming back to it because there’s always more to notice. The poems are deceptively simple and there’s one for every emotion, whether you’re looking for catharsis or to gain wisdom. Encouraging the reader to be present with themselves – and, above all, to hope – it is a perfect lockdown read to dip into. Whether wanting to read something familiar or feeling at a loss with life, Soul Food helps to assuage fear and encourage hope: it practices what it preaches. Furthermore, it would be my desert island choice. To me, Soul Food has valuable lessons that everyone can take something from.

The book is not overly political, but definitely carries with it a message; that we should treat everyone, and most importantly, ourselves, with kindness. Soul Food aims to break down the barriers we create between ourselves and the lives we could be leading. Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” emphatically tells the reader to ‘save / the only life you [can] save’, ignoring the ‘bad advice’ and general negativity of self-deprecation. But the message of self-love is accompanied, importantly, by entreaties to look beyond ourselves for inner peace. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” describes the nature of suffering, and how the only salve for this is empathy: ‘You must see how this could be you’.

The poems moreover provide a candid commentary on how humanity sees itself, and constricts itself by that act of viewing: ‘I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender, / But I’d like to.’ This contribution from Chase Twitchell highlights the willingness of the book’s editors to engage with ideas that transcend the body and generally accepted social structures, as well as language, time and culture.

A key ‘lesson’ to take from the book is that whatever happens, we are not alone; we can reach out. Again, “Kindness” speaks to this belief, using the metaphor of cloth and thread to describe the universal suffering of humanity, and how ‘it is only kindness that makes sense’ in the face of hardship. The poems are particularly relevant today, a time when many are suffering or having to cope with extreme changes to their daily lives. Rumi’s “A Zero-Circle” is one of many that encourages self-reflection and actualization: ‘let us rather not be sure of anything, / besides ourselves’, whilst the modern poet Jane Hirshfield reflects on the force of human resilience: ‘The world asks of us / only the strength we have and we give it. / Then it asks more, and we give it.’

The poems included in Soul Food provide fundamental sources of optimism in this time of great uncertainty and anxiety. Each provides a powerful reminder of how humans are able to adapt to adversity and struggle through difficult periods, while drawing emphasis to our shared experiences.