Three Poems: Meeting The Lemming, Garlands, The Removal Men

01 March 2013

ABOUT THE POEMS One of the most ambitious and versatile of contemporary poets, Ruth Padel has made for herself a reputation as someone who both has something important to say and a new language with which to say it. A descendant of Charles Darwin (about whom she has written a book, Darwin: A Life in Poems), she brings the combined force of both art and science to her craft. Her verse is sharp with the poet’s characteristic sense of the transience of apparently durable things (as in the bookcase of “Garlands” and the world it stands for) and of unexpected connections between apparently disparate things.

But these poems reveal not just art’s creation of new truths, but also science’s unpoetic skepticism about lies carefully constructed to resemble truths (as with the wildlife program in “Meeting the Lemming”, which is ruthlessly dismembered in a few stanzas of savage description). Padel’s tensile lines, leaps of thought, and mastery of her craft make these poems not just readable but endlessly re-readable—and always somehow new even when well-known.

Meeting the Lemming

None of it’s true. White Wilderness

faked the scene with illegal pets

bought from Eskimo children

flown in from Hudson Bay,  put to run

on a snow-covered turntable.

Tight camera angles

turn them to a mass

race over tundra

then Disney’s film crew throw them

off a cliff. Over they go

you can see them still

falling in celluloid aspic

to a lake of dying rodents

longhaired as Tuppenny the Runaway

Guinea-Pig in The Fairy Caravan,

smaller than the hamsters

my brother kept in that house

where black hollyhocks grew high

as the bedroom window.

That same brother who caught frostbite

on a snow-edged mountain range in Norway

examining the tricolor silks,

black, chestnut and white,

of a single lemming.


Everyone brings their own echoes. The four-foot

mahogany kitchen clock with the too-loud tick

has been sold to the blind piano tuner.

Someone has taken pity on water-colours of Italy

by an unknown great-aunt. Lumber from both sides

stretching back and back has gone to Oxfam

or been packed. There are letters in twelve

rotting suitcases, photos with no names

under faces looking blindly out

from a world of sepia into ours.  We’re down

to the basics, the chemical elements.

On the wall of the front room, a yellow patch

swagged with dust like garlands hung

for a wedding feast, where the black bookcase stood.

Removal Men

When my brother has got her away with the plants

they carry out the kitchen table, six armchairs

and metal speakers: sixty years of family Christmas

and listening to Mozart. Friends will now

have to make an extra journey to see her.

The bread she likes, with seeds in it, from the Co-op,

the Greater Spotted Woodpecker with a red token

on his nape – none of these will go with her

on the magic carpet these men provide

to the smaller, more sensible place. I unscrew

the casket flanking the front door like a herm

where for ten years their letters dropped, and spend an hour

untangling a nest-box, last employed by blue tits,

from the lace-cap hydrangea. She’s twined

a whole wilderness of wire beneath, to hold a family.

I set up camp at the folding table we picnicked on

when we were small, and see the grandfather clock,

bookcases and sofa go into the van. But Michael

comes round, he wants the carpet, the green

John Lewis Persian I helped her choose when I was ten.

It’s all fitted, where she’s going. Michael has his eye

on it for his front room beside the fire. Kneeling

with a claw-hammer in an emptied dining-room

I lever up two thousand nails. After tea-break,

Kieren of J.M. Briggs helps me roll, tape

and carry the thing round. Now they’ve gone,

Michael too, and I’m on my own with an empty house.

From her bedroom I look down on the garden

they made together – amelanchier, silver birch,

white rowan  and the apple tree which collapsed

under rowdy grandchildren, now overgrown

by clematis. We’ve cleared the shed.  I remove

her low-energy bulb and upside-down lampshade

and stand looking at the space where the bed

stood, where he died. That furred rasp in the throat.

Liquid morphine the doctor entrusted her with

because breathing was difficult. Little sips going on hours.

Then one breath finally stopped and the buyer of blue Chinese

pottery, the cellist, the lover of Homer and Horace,

the painter of new theories on dodecahedrons, was gone.

Ruth Padel has published eight collections of poetry: most recently Darwin—A Life in Poems on her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, and The Mara Crossing, on migration. Her novel Where the Serpent Lives is set in forests of south and north India. Her non-fiction includes Tigers in Red Weather on tiger conservation. Her website is