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by Ruth Padel |


 He's gone. She can't believe it, can't go on. She's going to give up painting. So she paints Her final canvas, total-turn-off
Black. One long
Obsidian goodbye. A charcoal-burner's Smirnoff, The mirror of Loch Ness Reflecting the monster back to its own eye.
But something's wrong. Those mad Black-body particles don't sing Her story of despair, the steel and
Garnet spindle
Of the storm.
This black has everything its own sweet way, Where's the I'd-like-to-kill-You conflict? Try once more, but this time add
A curve to all that straight. And opposition White. She paints black first. A grindstone belly Hammering a smaller shape
Beneath a snake
Of in-betweening light. "I feel like this. I hope that you do, too, Black crater. Screw you. Kiss" And sees a voodoo flicker, where two worlds nearly touch
And miss. That flash, where white
Lets black get close, that dagger of not-quite contact,
Catspaw panic, quiver on the wheat
Field before thunder -
There. That's it. That's her own self, in paint, Splitting what she was from what she is. As if everything that separates, unites.

from Voodoo Shop (Chatto, 2002), copyright © Ruth Padel 2002, used by permission of the author and the publisher

by Ruth Padel |


 (published on BLINKING EYE, )

Then spoke the thunder, shattering the looming blackness of our national life. The rumble that breaks a spell of the dry season

 – Saro-Wiwa, "The Storm Breaks"

Does a zebra foal dream? Head lower, lower
under lenticular dark cloud,
he drags harlequin fetlocks, porcelain
quails' egg hooflets through pimpling dust,

slower, slower through the silver
rainbow night, this soot and fester
cellar-lighting, electricity of the blue
and evil eye. Night ringed with eyes,

gutter-glow of new-soused theatre,
hyena, leopard, caracal (that caramel cat
with ear tufts, anxious to feed her cubs)
watching the lame foal weakened by drought.

All you know is, that you don't know,
and are afraid. Moonshadow
where the big rocks laugh apart.
Predator-senses. Cilia. Heat detectors

crowd this long auditorium, segment
after segment of the midnight shuffle-plains.
They radar in on bodies, fluids, molecules
of flesh that do not know they glow, they draw.

Let's give him one dream-memory,
a zebra wish fulfilled in dazing plod,
some sheer green wall of sugarcane.
And look - he's made it through

into the bleach and blaze, rose curdling
over indigo and lard, this granult scar
of dawn. One more dawn nearer the water.
Sky blood-taggled, blood-tufted,

rushes over him like a white bowl
at the end of things, the little safe horizon
of a pilot's dial,
an inventory of therapeutic gems.

by Ruth Padel |


 (After Pushkin) 
Look at the bare wood hand-waxed floor and long 
White dressing-gown, the good child's writing-desk 
And passionate cold feet
Summoning music of the night - tumbrils, gongs
And gamelans - with one neat pen, one candle
Puttering its life out hour by hour. 
Is "Tell Him I love him" never a good idea? You can't wish this
Unlived - this world on fire, on storm 
Alert, till the shepherd's song 
Outside, some hyper-active yellowhammer, bulbul,
Wren, amplified in hills and woods, tell her to bestow 
A spot of notice on the dawn.
"I'm writing to you. Well, that's it, that's everything.
You'll laugh, but you'll pity me too. I'm ashamed of this.
I meant to keep it quiet. You'd never have known, if -
I wish - I could have seen you once a week. To mull over, day 
And night, the things you say, or what we say together.
But word is, you're misogynist. Laddish. A philanderer
Who says what he doesn't mean. (That's not how you come across 
To me.) Who couldn't give a toss for domestic peace - 
Only for celebrity and showing off - 
And won't hang round in a provincial zone 
Like this. We don't glitter. Though we do,
Warmly, truly, welcome you.
"Why did you come? I'd never have set eyes 
On a star like you, or blundered up against
This crazed not-sleeping, hour after hour
In the dark. I might have got the better of
My clumsy fury with constraint, my fret
For things I lack all lexica and phrase-book art
To say. I might have been a faithful wife; a mother.
But that's all done with. This is Fate. God. 
Sorted. Here I am - yours, to the last breath. 
I couldn't give my heart to anyone else.
My life till now has been a theorem, to demonstrate
How right it is to love you. This love is love to death.
"I knew you anyway. I loved you, I'm afraid,
In my sleep. Your eyes, that denim-lapis, grey-sea- 
Grey-green blue, that Chinese fold of skin
At the inner corner, that shot look 
Bleeping "vulnerable" under the screensaver charm, 
Kept me alive. Every cell, every last gold atom
Of your body, was engraved in me 
Already. Don't tell me that was dream! When you came in, 
Staring round in your stripey coat and brocade 
Vest, I nearly died! I fainted, I was flame! I recognized
The you I'd always listened to alone, when I wrote
Or tried to wrestle my scatty soul into calm.
"Wasn't it you who slipped through the transparent
Darkness to my bed and whispered love? Aren't you
My guardian angel? Or is this arrant
Seeming, hallucination, thrown 
Up by that fly engineering a novel does
So beguilingly, or poems? Is this mad? 
Are there ways of dreaming I don't know?
Too bad. My soul has made its home
In you. I'm here and bare before you: shy,
In tears. But if I didn't heft my whole self up and hold it there - 
A crack-free mirror - loving you, or if I couldn't share
It, set it out in words, I'd die.
"I'll wait to hear from you. I must. Please let me hope.
Give me one look, from eyes I hardly dare
To look back at. Or scupper my dream 
By scolding me. I've given you rope
To hang me: tell me I'm mistaken. You're so much in
The world; while I just live here, bent on jam 
And harvest, songs and books. That's not complaint.
We live such different lives. So - this is the end. It's taken 
All night. I'm scared to read it back. I'm faint
With shame and fear. But this is what I am. My crumpled bed,
My words, my open self. All I can do is trust
The whole damn lot of it to you."
She sighs. The paper trembles as she presses down 
The pink wax seal. Outside, a milk mist clears
From the shimmering valley. If I were her guardian
Angel, I'd divide myself. One half would holler
Don't! Stay on an even keel! Don't dollop over
All you are, to a man who'll go to town 
On his next little fling. If he's entranced today 
By the way you finger your silk throat inside your collar,
Tomorrow there'll be Olga, Sally, Jane. But then I'd whisper
Go for it, petal. Nothing's as real as what you write.
His funeral, if he's not up to it. What we feel
Is mortal, and won't come again.
So cut, weeks later, to an outside shot: the same girl
Taking cover ("Dear God, he's here, he's come!")
Under fat red gooseberries, glimmering hairy stars:
The old, rude bushes she has hide-and-seeked in all 
Her life, where mother commands the serfs to sing
While picking, so they can't hurl
The odd gog into their mouths. No one could spy
Her here, not even the sun in its burn-time. Her cheeks 
Are simmering fire.
We're talking iridescence, a Red Admiral's last tremble
Before the avid schoolboy plunks his net.
Or imagine
A leveret - like the hare you shot, remember? 
Which ran round screaming like a baby?
Only mine is shivering in papery winter corn,
While the hunter (as it might be, you) stomps his Hush 
Puppies through dead brush. Everything's quiet.
She's waited - how long? - ages: stoking pebbly embers
Under the evening samovar, filling 
The Chinese teapot, sending coils of Lapsang Suchong
Floating to the ceiling in the shadows, tracing O and E 
In the window's black reflection, one finger 
Tendrilling her own breath on the glass. 
Like putting a shell to your ear to hear the sea 
When it's really your own red little sparkle, the echo 
Of marching blood. She's asking a phantom 
World of pearled-up mist for proof
That her man exists: that gamelans and tumbrils
Won't evade her. But now, among 
The kitchen garden's rose-haws, mallow, Pernod- 
Coloured pears, she unhooks herself thorn by thorn 
For the exit aria. For fade-out. Suddenly there he is
In the avenue, the man she's written to - Charon
Gazing at her with blazing eyes! Darth Vader
From Star Wars. She's trapped, in a house she didn't realize
Was burning. Her letter was a gate to the inferno.
(This poem appeared in Pushkin: An Anthology, ed. E. Feinstein, Carcanet 1999)

by Ruth Padel |


 We're talking different kinds of vulnerability here.

These icicles aren't going to last for ever 

Suspended in the ultra violet rays of a Dumfries sun.

But here they hang, a frozen whirligig of lightning,

And the famous American sculptor 

Who scrambles the world with his tripod

For strangeness au naturel, got sunset to fill them. 

It's not comfortable, a double helix of opalescent fire 


Wrapping round you, swishing your bark

Down cotton you can't see,

On which a sculptor planned his icicles, 

Working all day for that Mesopotamian magic

Of last light before the dark

In a suspended helter-skelter, lit

By almost horizontal rays

Making a mist-carousel from the House of Diamond,


A spiral of Pepsodent darkening to the shadowfrost

Of cedars at the Great Gate of Kiev.

Why it makes me think of opening the door to you

I can't imagine. No one could be less

Of an icicle. But there it is -

Having put me down in felt-tip

In the mystical appointment book, 

You shoot that quick


Inquiry-glance, head tilted, when I open up,

Like coming in's another country,

A country you want but have to get used to, hot 

From your bal masqu?, making sure 

That what you found before's

Still here: a spiral of touch and go,

Lightning licking a tree

Imagining itself Aretha Franklin

Singing "You make me feel like a natural woman" 

In basso profondo,

Firing the bark with its otherworld ice

The way you fire, lifting me 

Off my own floor, legs furled 

Round your trunk as that tree goes up 

At an angle inside the lightning, roots in

The orange and silver of Dumfries.


Now I'm the lightning now you, you are,

As you pour yourself round me 

Entirely. No who's doing what and to who,

Just a tangle of spiral and tree.

You might wonder about sculptors who come all this way 

To make a mad thing that won't last.

You know how it is: you spend a day, a whole life.

Then the light's gone, you walk away 


To the Galloway Paradise Hotel. Pine-logs,

Cutlery, champagne - OK, 

But the important thing was making it.

Hours, and you don't know how it'll be. 

Then something like light

Arrives last moment, at speed reckoned 

Only by horizons: completing, surprising 

With its three hundred thousand 


Kilometres per second. Still, even lightning has its moments of panic.

You don't get icicles catching the midwinter sun 

In a perfect double helix in Dumfriesshire every day. 

And can they be good for each other,

Lightning and tree? It'd make anyone,

Wouldn't it, afraid? That rowan would adore

To sleep and wake up in your arms 


But's scared of getting burnt. And the lightning might ask, touching wood,

"What do you want of me, now we're in the same 

Atomic chain?" What can the tree say?

"Being the centre of all that you are to yourself -

That'd be OK. Being my own body's fine

But it needs yours to stay that way."

No one could live for ever in 


A suspended gleam-on-the-edge,

As if sky might tear any minute. Or not for ever for long. Those icicles

Won't be surprise any more. The little snapped threads 

Blew away. Glamour left that hill in Dumfries.

The sculptor went off with his black equipment. 

Adzes, twine, leather gloves.


What's left is a photo of

A completely solitary sight

In a book anyone might open. 

But whether our touch at the door gets forgotten

Or turned into other sights, light, form, 

I hope you'll be truthful

To me. At least as truthful as lightning,

Skinning a tree.

THIS POEM WON THE 1996 National Poetry Prize

by Ruth Padel |


 Flamingo silk. New ruff, 
the ivory ghost 
of a halter. Chestnut curls,


commas behind the ear.
"Taller, by half a head, 
than my Lord Walsingham."


His Devon-cream brogue,
malt eyes. New cloak 
mussed in her mud.


The Queen leans forward,
a rosy envelope of civet.
A cleavage


whispering seed pearls.
Her own sleeve 
rubs that speck of dirt


on his cheek. Three thousand 
ornamental fruit baskets
swing in the smoke.


"It is our pleasure 
to have our servant trained 
some longer time 


in Ireland." Stamp out 
marks of the Irish.
Their saffron smocks.


All curroughs, bards
and rhymers. Desmonds
and Fitzgeralds


stuck on low spikes,
an avenue of heads to
the war tent.


Kerry timber 
sold to the Canaries.
Pregnant girls


hung in their own hair
on city walls. Plague 
crumpling gargoyles


through Munster. "They spoke 
like ghosts crying
out of their graves."

by Ruth Padel |


 I was with Special Force, blue-X-ing raids 
to OK surfing on the Colonel's birthday.
Operation Ariel: we sprayed Jimi Hendrix
loud from helis to frighten the slopes 
before 'palming. A turkey shoot.


The Nang fogged up. The men you need
are moral and kill like angels. Passionless. 
No judgement. Judgement defeats us. 
You're choosing between nightmares all the time.
My first tour, we hissed into an encampment 
early afternoon, round two. The new directive,
polio. Inoculating kids. It took a while.
As we left, this old man came up, pulled on our
back-lag jeep-hoods, yacking. We went back.
They'd come behind us, hacked off
all the inoculated arms. There they were 
in a pile, a pile of little arms.


Soon after, all us new recruits turned on
to angel-dust like the rest. 
You get it subsidized out there.
The snail can' t crawl on the straight
razor and live. I'm innocent.

(This poem was Commended in the 1992 National Poetry Competition)

by Ruth Padel |


 Water, moonlight, danger, dream.
Bronze urn, angled on a tree root: one
Slash of light, then gone. A red moon
Seen through clouds, or almost seen.

Treasure found but lost, flirting between
The worlds of lost and found. An unjust law
Repealed, a wish come true, a lifelong
Sadness healed. Haven, in the mind,

To anyone hurt by littleness. A prayer
For the moment, saved; treachery forgiven.
Flame of the crackle-glaze tangle, amber
Reflected in grey milk-jade. An old song
Remembered, long debt paid.
A painting on silk, which may fade.

by Ruth Padel |


 The ground verdigris, fluffy with young mosquitoes. Waters
as sacred as these, as fatted with reeds. Bronze palm planted
to Sun. Lizards, Nile alligators, hindquarters
rolling on granite sphinx-chippings. Air salted with confident
brown larks, Travelling, you remember (mind 
upturning these foreign priests, finding
the causes) that stamen-summit: white long 
unbloody altar, giddy blues under you, calyx of bronze
flat islands unfolding, blind.