Paul Matthews stands by “that good word” – soul – when so much in our culture seems intent on denying it.

I LIKE THIS book, though when it came through my letterbox I confess I did meet it with, “Oh, no – not another book inspired by Rumi and Hafiz!” As soon as I opened it, however, my resistance faded in the presence of the generous outpouring of its language; and actually I do admire poets who, as Noel Cobb does here, acknowledge their heroes and place their own words within the stream of a living tradition. Robert Bly, as mentioned in the Afterword, is one of them; Goethe (who also found inspiration from Hafiz) is another… Carl Jung… James Hillman – those who in our time have dared to stand by that good word ‘soul’ when so much in our present culture is intent on denying it.

Fundamental, in fact, to the ‘gazelle of the Ghazal’ form that Cobb borrows from the Persian poet Hafiz is the practice of making ‘unexpected leaps of imagination’ in naming and lauding the great souls – Vincent van Gogh, Nina Simone, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to mention a few – who through the ages have shaped our language and imagination. It is the power of this book to help us stand meaningfully within the community of the so-called dead, within the stream of language that flows from them and sets our own tongues wagging – from anima mundi, as Cobb would have it.

Anima – ‘soul’ – is central to this book, and images of animals fundamental to the interpretation of it. The poems range widely between praise and lamentation – lamentation for every cramp of soul that causes the nightingale to desert our hedgerows, the captured macaques to “wring their tiny hands and stare at the sky”; praise for the “savour, the flavour, the taste of things”, for the blackbird’s song, through which our human inwardness finds access to the soul of the world.

“If we do not save the soul, who will?” is one of the many questions that fill these pages. This questing is a thing that I particularly like about the book – “Where is this poem going?” the writer suddenly stops to ask. Whatever it does turn out to be about, Cobb carries an admirable trust that “eloquence keeps the world alive,” and certainly I come away from the reading with my senses wide for the beauty that surrounds me.

I began by mentioning a resistance, and if reading involves a wrestling, why not acknowledge it? So, when Cobb (in the tradition of the Ghazal) addresses himself thus:

O Noel, however much you fix your thought on ruins

or on the cruel bewilderment of poverty and war,

you cannot conceal your longing for the One

I find myself responding with, “O Noel, though I share your sense that the true poet sets up office against those Calvins and McCarthys that you name, against ‘profiteering souls’ who contract us too deeply into physical existence, do I really have to go to the other extreme, fall out of my skin, be whirled away, dissolved into ‘the One’?”

This is a doctrinal wariness I am talking of, not a literary one; but since Cobb’s influences, Rumi and Hafiz, are poets prone to telling people what to believe and how to behave, I find myself tested on this level. I happen to think that our separation from the ‘Beloved’ over many centuries is not just an aberration of history but part of a meaningful story: “Love”, says Rilke, “is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another… it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself.”

Here, with my soul bound too tightly, perhaps, within my English skin, I confess to being somewhat on guard lest the perfumes of poetic language seduce me away from this that I hold to be important. Well, it is Cobb’s professed aim to encourage “divine conversation”. The book engages me, and I am glad of it.

Paul Matthews teaches Creative Writing at Emerson College.