Ruth Padel |
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.
Who says what he doesn't mean.
(That's not how you come across
) Who couldn't give a toss for domestic peace -
Only for celebrity and showing off -
And won't hang round in a provincial zone
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
I might have been a faithful wife; a mother.
But that's all done with.
This is Fate.
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
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?
My soul has made its home
I'm here and bare before you: shy,
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.
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.
I'm scared to read it back.
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.
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.
Are simmering fire.
We're talking iridescence, a Red Admiral's last tremble
Before the avid schoolboy plunks his net.
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.
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.
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
Her letter was a gate to the inferno.
(This poem appeared in Pushkin: An Anthology, ed.
Feinstein, Carcanet 1999)
Ruth Padel |
(published on BLINKING EYE, http://www.
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.
where the big rocks laugh apart.
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
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.
Ruth Padel |
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
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
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.
Kiss" And sees a voodoo flicker, where two worlds nearly touch
That flash, where white
Lets black get close, that dagger of not-quite contact,
Catspaw panic, quiver on the wheat
Field before thunder -
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
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
A turkey shoot.
The Nang fogged up.
The men you need
are moral and kill like angels.
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,
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.
(This poem was Commended in the 1992 National Poetry Competition)
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
Haven, in the mind,
To anyone hurt by littleness.
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.
Ruth Padel |
the ivory ghost
of a halter.
commas behind the ear.
"Taller, by half a head,
than my Lord Walsingham.
His Devon-cream brogue,
mussed in her mud.
The Queen leans forward,
a rosy envelope of civet.
whispering seed pearls.
Her own sleeve
rubs that speck of dirt
on his cheek.
ornamental fruit baskets
swing in the smoke.
"It is our pleasure
to have our servant trained
some longer time
" Stamp out
marks of the Irish.
Their saffron smocks.
All curroughs, bards
stuck on low spikes,
an avenue of heads to
the war tent.
sold to the Canaries.
hung in their own hair
on city walls.
like ghosts crying
out of their graves.
Ruth Padel |
The ground verdigris, fluffy with young mosquitoes.
as sacred as these, as fatted with reeds.
Bronze palm planted
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.
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
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.
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.
Won't be surprise any more.
The little snapped threads
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
At least as truthful as lightning,
Skinning a tree.
THIS POEM WON THE 1996 National Poetry Prize