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Book Review: Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul edited by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard

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Twenty poems seem easy enough to find – but ones which nourish the soul? Nourishment of any type is difficult to find. To nourish is to enrich, to sustain. The soul is a much debated article, tangible to some, elusive to others, its very existence a sore topic to many. So, poems which nourish the soul? Seems a tall order. The question here, then, is whether this book can hope to fill it.

The format seems straightforward enough. Ten chapters, two poems per chapter. The chapters stand roughly astride the following topics: Attentiveness, Gratitude, Acceptance, Simplicity, Praise, Work, Loss, Body and Soul, Mystery, and Prayer. The poems selected are by various authors. Some are well-known: W.S. Merwin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Some are perhaps less famous: Charles Wright, Li-Young Lee. Many poems included are personal in nature, yet resonate with the wider world: Whitman’s Song of Myself, for instance, printed within in well-chosen excerpts. And there are voices heretofore widely unknown, but whose words the co-editors of this book (Judith Valente and Charles Reynard) found moving in some way.

After an illuminating, scholarly foreword by Joseph Parisi, Ms. Valente offers an Introduction. Her Introduction outlines the purpose of the book while beginning the very personal ‘diary’ tone of the upcoming twenty essays either by herself or her co-editor Mr. Reynard. I suppose I should have taken more note of the words in the Introduction. It would have given a clue as to the very personal nature of what I was about to read, and perhaps changed my expectations. The plainspoken intent given in the Introduction was: “These twenty poems are some of our favorite things, and we will tell you how they have helped us find God in all things.”

The focus of this book, then, is intently spiritual (“soul” is not merely a symbol therein) and often religious. I had no problem with that – but anyone expecting a dispassionate, agnostic, scholarly look at questions of the spirit might be disappointed. What did bother me, in the end, was the relentlessly autobiographical nature of the twenty essays contained in this book. In our blog-driven universe, there seems no such thing as too much information, but some of us still blanch. Why should I? I often enjoy autobiographies. But it was not what I was in the market for, here.

If reading poetry could be compared to walking through a garden, marveling at this flower or that, the shape of the hedge just beyond, the bee busily tending to a bloom – one can see this walk is best taken in solitude. If these poems were to nourish my own soul, that is how I wished to experience them. Perhaps a light shone here or there. Perhaps a hedge made more conspicuous by the path laid before it. There is an art to a beautiful garden such that the guide is invisible. But the guide was there in its planning all along. The pilgrim brings his or her own experiences, their history with them. And their own impressions are taken away. If the course was delicately set, before being left to the pilgrim following it, all that is seen is beauty.

The way I experienced the enormous amount of very personal information the two editors included about themselves – their love story, their children, their work, their families – was as if a constant chatter built up around me during that peaceful garden exploration. I could not, then, divorce my bliss at “this flower” from the story of how my guide through the garden had seen such a flower at age five; or the buzzing bee from the story about his daughter being stung at college. Or the joy at the coy curve of the topiary from a story about the hedge the person stood near when he proposed. All those sampled stories I’ve just shared are fictional, but similar in nature to those shared in this book’s essays. The details of the personal stories repeated throughout the twenty essays in this book crowded into my enjoyment of the poems they claim to reference, in a similar way. I struggled with my reaction, but in the end I could not escape my conclusion that the editors’ private details did not belong in a volume of poetry if the volume existed to open poetry to other people’s souls. Simply put, there is no room left for the reader.

In essence there are two books within the one. The love story the two editors experienced and write of here – their work and family lives before, how the two met, their shared love – is moving enough. Isn’t it always when someone finds their “soulmate?” But I can’t think how it belongs within a poetry assortment, or how it elucidates the poems for a reader. It tells the story of these two people. But how does that reflect for the reader, when the reader does not know these two people? Is a personal story necessary, to illustrate loss? Is it not likely each reader has experienced loss and is familiar with it?

I’d have preferred, then, more abstract essays. I’d have preferred to bring my own example and imagery of pain and loss to that particular poem and meld it there of my own accord. For, then, that poem would be mine to experience. The nourishment I took would be directly from the source. I did not wish to read about the editors’ daily lives in regards to the other poets’ work. I’d have preferred, if personality must intrude, to read more about each poet, in each instance. A bit of scenery if you will, a setting. And then, let me discover the poems on my own. Let me bring to these words my own life’s music, if it must have accompaniment. Let the editors choose the twenty poems, and then choose what not to tell. The editing is in knowing when to stop.

The co-editors (who write poetry) have each included a poem they wrote. Those would have been the spaces following which to insert their editorials of personal experience and meaning; they could have done so with authority and shone light on their interesting individual and shared histories. In those cases it would have illuminated the poems’ paths. Otherwise, I could not hear the nature for the noise. I wish very strongly that, at the very least, the twenty chosen poems would have been in their own chapter at the front of the book – with no editorial commentary whatsoever. Then, either reprint the twenty poems paired with each of the twenty essays written by Ms. Valente and Mr. Reynard, or simply print the essays in their separate sections, under the appropriate matching chapter title. Give the reader a bit of space either way, for their own wander.

One thing I believe about a soul is that it needs room. One thing I believe about nourishment is it can’t take place elbow to elbow in a hurried jostle. Yes, I could have taken the time after each poem, put the book down. But I kept thinking, they would not have written this if it did not matter. So I turned the page. I suppose the thing I am saying, perhaps cruelly, is that the content of the essays did not matter to me. It matters intently, I’m sure, to the essay’s writers. To the people in their stories. But for me it was the host standing in the way of the poet I wanted to hear. I would pay for a second book which was all about their inspiring story; but I felt it was out of place in a poetry collection. It also, frankly, troubled me that editors of a poetry volume of mixed origin would include two of their own works. Does this mean their own poetry inspires them? Fair enough, but again I felt a boundary had been crossed, and diary had replaced editorial judgment.

Some, perhaps, will love this approach to poetry; they will find the personal content generous, and humbly naked. They will find the sharing of painful personal experiences, and life changing moments, which these two editors share plentifully, disarming. Perhaps some readers will feel the poetry is demystified by this long, personal confidence. Perhaps some readers will see poetry go from an intimidating behemoth to a friend open to chat. But for me, poetry was already a friend, one I wished to stroll alone with. A guide – which to me is what an editor is – should point a salient feature upcoming here and there, but then stand back and let the pilgrim make their own journey. The orchestra director does not sing in the opera, rather facilitates its beauty. A novelist does not insert his autobiography between the covers, alongside the pages of his novel.

At one point, for example, Mr. Reynard writes that he is rather shy in life, and does not take best to publicly recited prayer. He writes he prefers the meditative to the rote, as well. These admissions seem incongruous with the heft of so much private detail into this volume – into what should for the reader be an invitation to a banquet, a plate set before the stranger with which to take, and nourish themselves. Instead it feels as if these poems have had a bite taken out of them before the reader is invited to sit. These twenty poems are arranged before the reader, a promise implied they will bear fruit in the nourishment of one’s soul. The problem is not the poems themselves (which I leave for the reader to discover of their own will), but the courses between. Words like mindfulness, prayer, soul, are mentioned in Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul, but the main impression I was left with was a very private love story begging to be told. It should be. But not here.

This volume perhaps would have been more appropriately titled, “Twenty Poems That Nourished Our Souls.” And then I would have walked through the book’s pages with the two lovers and listened to their tale. But this was their tale. It is their story. I felt as if I was eavesdropping. For me, poetry is a meditation. It can be practiced anywhere but not equally well. For me, the best host is one who invites, smiles, and disappears to leave the guest to wander. The best soundtrack is the one nature provides although no one seems to be conducting. The best poetry volumes invite one in and stand waiting, trusting the reader to bring the rest. So I can only give this particular volume a mixed review, for the sense of intrusion and chatter I experienced there.

For me, the best meditation is silence.

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