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.
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.