André Naffis-Sahely reviews Ruth Padel

Emerald published by Chatto & Windus (2018)

If Ruth Padel is one our national treasures – and she most certainly is – then her latest book of poems, Emerald (Chatto & Windus, 2018), her twelfth collection, will surely rank as one of her greatest achievements to date. In a sense, given her intrepid questing across our planet to routinely bring us expertly-sculpted stories to fire up our imaginations, Padel definitely deserves at least some praise for making it back in one piece. After all, one tends to approach her books with the slight apprehension that her curiosity might eventually get the best of her – from searching for tigers in the Sundarbans to kayaking down dangerous rivers – and Emerald assuredly continues in that hair-raising tradition. ‘Tuning Your Lyre Among the Shades’, which is based on Padel’s trip to the Muzo mine in Colombia’s Boyacá province, shows our correspondent “entering a stone world / the Porto Arturo shaft / through Security / to the charcoal frogmouth / bowels of the mine / wearing waterproofs / a saffron-glaze hard hat / rubber boots and gloves.” Of course in Padel’s poetry, the journey itself is only the first stepping stone to her lyrical reflections on the human condition. As she writes in ‘Carbon Labyrinth’, “If you are looking for love / try the mysteries of earth”, and a fleeting image of teenage girls trawling “abandoned shafts” in ‘Above is the Same as Below’, finds the poet in awe at the sight of “wild eyes   wet clothes   a panda blur / of blackened faces // that’s all of us / sifting the dark / in our anonymities   and hope.”

Although Padel guides us on literal and imaginative tours around the world, from the green hills of the Ariège, where she visits the historic caves of Niaux, to the Ecuadorian volcano Cotopaxi, she is also careful not to overly revel in her cosmopolitan adventures, as she makes clear in the book’s longest poem, ‘The Emerald Tablet’: “You quested to boundaries of earth / for the meaning of life / and found it in your own backyard.” Intense flights of geological and geographical fancy are thus anchored to the bedrock of real emotions and experiences. Indeed, while Padel is careful enough a writer that she could have made a fine book out of emerald the precious stone and the effect it has had on our cultures and histories, she instead stretches her metaphor to include, above all, a moving memoir of her mother, Hilda Padel (1919–2017) and of the author’s grief following her passing. Light, an expected theme in a book about a jewel, I suppose, is also ingeniously used as an entry-point into Padel’s loss. The book’s second poem, ‘Astray’ says as much: “The wound is where the light gets in / but what is light? When your mother / dies   you lose other things too / your sense of direction // like faceting a jewel / cutting away precious mineral / to let the rays go deeper   farther”.

Padel’s mother, a keen naturalist – somewhat unsurprising, given the family’s famous predilection for the sciences – emerges as a jagged, charming character, as fully fleshed as one would expect in a good novel. Hilda, Padel tells us, “preferred clear light / to sweet talk of pretence / and spoke of how she’d loved the Zoo. // The science   the romance / of a wilderness within the city/exquisite   endangered animals and plants” although the celebration of Hilda’s long life – ‘Clast’ tell us she turned twenty-one “during the London blitz” – is nevertheless dominated by the difficulties of her illness and, for much of the book, the feeling of impending death. In ‘Gorey Bay, Jersey, 1933’, Padel the daughter reminds Padel the mother of an old trip she’d taken at the age of fourteen, although her mother cannot, by then, recognize herself in her own photos.

‘A Trip to the Moon’ chronicles her mother’s relocation, aged ninety-one, an experience where “Words like sheltered accommodation / are coming at us from outer space” and the dramatic tension of this journey towards Hilda’s demise is impeccably sustained throughout the book, as is the case with ‘Intermission’: “I’m on the way out // she kept saying to friends and family / daring them to say she wasn’t. / Perky    almost belligerent. // It was always hard for her to feel valued. / Her combative talk / was more loving than sugary words.” Painting an intensely beautiful portrait of final farewells, Padel employs modern technology to connect her ailing mother to the rest of their scattered family, “I held my mobile to her ear / so she could chat / with my daughter in Colombia // a grandson in Barcelona / another in Palestine / and her sister-in-law // in a bad way too / who said in her soft voice / I shall follow you soon.”

Despite its overarching grief and heart-rending images – ‘Nursing Wing’ sees Hilda “climbing new Himalayas at every breath” – Emerald also includes snatches of appealing humor, as in ‘She Liked a Laugh’: “What if I’d said   one evening / lighting the lamp    cooking dinner / while she took in the weather forecast // I believe/that emeralds   come from planet Venus are found in nests of griffins / emit the energy of Saturn / reveal the truth when placed under the tongue and their powers are spiritual / balance   wisdom   love  / the re-awakening of spring? // I can just see / the grin. / Oh Ruth!” Yet loss inevitably arrives and it settles in for a long stay, and one can’t help but be moved by intensely lyrical lines such as “Here’s to goodbye. Here’s to the tears / I knew I’d cry”, although Padel, as ever, slowly finds solace in her wanderlust. On a trip to Jaipur’s Old Bazaar, the author finds her way to an emerald dealer’s yard, where revelation strikes – “for hope can be found the other side of pain” –  although Padel’s infectious fascination for history never lags too far behind: “for five hundred years / the Mughal emperors / ordered enormous crystals up from obscure shafts / beneath the carbon heart / of Andes. Pink City / became Emerald City    adept / in the unique cutting properties of emerald / the only stone in which the flaws are prized.”

In brief, there is something here to please even the most difficult of readers and the question seems settled to me: Padel has made great art out of her ingenious – and utterly satisfying – blending of lyric memoir, natural history, and travel writing, defying the limitations poets all too often place on themselves. I am unable to stop returning to her work in order to learn, to think and to feel, not necessarily in that order. Everyone should read Emerald, it’s as valuable as the title implies.

André Naffis-Sahely’s The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life was published by Penguin in 2017. His translations from French and Italian include works by Abdellatif Laâbi, Rashid Boudjedra and Tahar Ben Jelloun. He is currently a Visiting Teaching Fellow at Manchester Met’s Writing School and is the poetry editor of Ambit. 

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