Ruth Padel
The Soho Leopard

Book Reviews

Published by Chatto Poetry

If Ruth Padel was a man – say Jonathan Miller – she would, no doubt, have the adjective ‘Renaissance’ placed in front of the noun, as in ‘Renaissance Man’; but it is not a description that we are much given to using for women. But there is no doubt of the breadth and depth of her erudition. The great great great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin on her mother’s side she studied classics, became the first woman fellow at Wadham College, Oxford, a research fellow at Woolfson and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge and Birkbeck. She studied in Paris and Berlin and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. For a while she worked and lived in Greece, sang, she likes to note in her biographical details, in an Istanbul nightclub and the Heraklion Town Choir. She has published six collections of poetry, won the National Poetry Competition, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Whitbread prizes and established a poetry column in The Independent on Sunday entitled 52 ways of looking at a poem. She has written on women in opera, on rock music and masculinity, is a Fellow of the Zoological Society and for the last two years has been researching the threat to wild tigers in remote parts of Asia for a new book. So apparently exotic is her life that it is difficult to think of Ruth Padel as someone who has to do anything as mundane as the weekly shop in Tescos; though, of course, she must. And it is exactly this eclectic, postmodern mix of high culture and demotic experience that is the hallmark to her writing. “Passion, wit, music, texture and elegance,” are the words Paul Durcan has used to describe her poetry. Other adjectives commonly employed are ‘glittering’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘sexy’. It is quite a reputation to live up to.

Her new collection The Soho Leopard is perhaps her most daring and virtuoso to date, adding the magical realism of animal legend and the zoological, alongside a smattering of references to love, to her already broad canvas. Here she melds a highly cultured register – some might argue a touch elitist and arcane – with the modes and tonalities of street language. It is a high risk strategy and, as with all such strategies, there are times when she pulls it off like a magician conjuring a white rabbit from a top hat and others when she slips from the high wire. The first poem in the first section, Mary’s Elephant, Elizabeth’s Spinet sets the tone. The poem is based on an embroidery panel in the V & A, which hangs in the British Galleries next to a spinet. There are references to C. Gensner’s Icones Animalium, to Mary’s impending execution, while later in the poem, which as we are told takes place “some night in the 1580s” “Cousin E tries some Byrdian version of Only the Lonely… It is here that, for this reader at least, the problems start, with this weaving of colloquial phrases and references into her tapestry of erudition. Padel has said “I want to be able to contain within every poem the very formal, maybe archaic things and also slangy demotic stuff.” This collaging is something that in poetry she has made very much her own but in other media, such as the visual arts, such a devise might seem so old hat as almost to be a cliché. There are times when it works wonderfully well as in the surprising and seemingly effortless description in Saviour of the Leopard running through the sky all day on his “Lucozade paws”. Here “Lucozade” not only functions as brilliant adjective denoting exact colour, but it also conjures fizz, brio and energy.

Padel seems to have an unquenchable thirst for the arcane and the exotic. In the five line stanzas of Saviour we find the “Itzamna, King of the Mayan sky” along with the “Lords of Xibalba”, there is also a liberal smattering of “atropines/narcotics, phytotoxins” and “glycosides”. While in the succeeding poem, The Hand that Fed Him, where Jaguar “God of the Amazon” takes man back to his cave to show him fire and feed him, the guessing of what has been served on the menu: “Grilled crocodile? Broiled anteater?” is followed, slightly uncomfortably, by “Fab! So new, so now.” There is something slightly off key about this diction. As if the poet is striving too hard and, like the youthful mother who tries to appear ‘hip’ around her teenage kids and their friends by using their slang and dressing in their fashions, only succeeds in getting it wrong and embarrassing them. The same might be argued for voice of Yellow Gourds with Jaguar in Dulwich Pizza Hut with its references to the fashion world of “Kenzo, Versace, Agnès B”. Surprising and original though the images are in the title poem Soho Leopard, where in a magical realist scenario the endangered Amur leopard slinking down the streets of Soho becomes a conceit to mull over a failed relationship, it is in poems where Padel allows her highly original imagination simply to reveal the world anew, rather than engineering false cultural collisions, that she is at her strongest. In her poem about The Pazyrak Nomad found in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains her descriptions of the ancient mummy are finely observed. “Skin, full of tannin./ Gut,/ a lunette of glass. This halo of copper screw-studs/ round her head means what was inside was special.” Here the diction and descriptive language do not act primarily as a devise to grab the reader’s attention by their odd juxtopositioning but are organic to the vision, tone, smell and feel of the poem.

Among the poems in which she executes this skill with a sharp exactness are those that form the series The King’s Cross Foxes, a commission from ArtAngel in conjunction with the sculptor Richard Wentworth. Linking the rhythm of the life of these urban foxes “with ancient British names for the year’s twelve full moons, named for seasonal human activities in the country”, as she tells us in her notes, she gives a vibrant picture of these newly-arrived, largely clandestine inner-city dwellers. Here the eclectic mix of fare the dog fox brings back to his lair is aptly descriptive rather than a tricksy, stylistic trope. “Voluted Kentucky Fried Chicken bones, / maggoty pigeon’s left wing. Fat brown slug, /a wet-glisten Havana cigar. Prawn Pot Noodle.” Her description of the vixen’s call as “Her three-stanza bark, coughed scream/in the dark, that could be a murder, a child”, combines a fear of the dark and the feral with a dread of the unknown night city all in two lines. While the “black, deaf and blind” fox clubs conjured under the “duvet of her brush” could hardly be bettered. Here, too, her specialist knowledge of the fox’s nose – perhaps this is where being a Fellow of the Zoological Society comes in – does not seem, here, like a promiscuous way of seducing the reader with arcane detail but is integral to the very essence of the fox’s behaviour and the language necessary to describe him. One can almost imagine Ruth Padel in some dark goods yard whispering these words, David Attenborough style, crouched in front of a BBC wildlife camera, so exact are her descriptions:

“With his vomero-nasal organ (smell-cells,
behind front teeth in the mouth’s ribbed vault),
and two hundred million scent-receptors
(humans have five) packed in his nose –

so granulated, wet and mad for pungency –

Someone once described her poems as a collection of “cultural bricolage” and this is, no doubt, the effect that she is aiming at with titles such as: The Forest, The Corrupt Official and A Bowl of Penis Soup, a poem on painting, deforestation, corruption and the poaching of tigers. There is no doubt that Padel is a linguistic wizard, always achieving an unusual image or word where others may have settled for something less original or startling. Yet there are times when the emotion of her poems feels diluted by the digressions, where the intricate, complex embroidery of words can feel overloaded and one longs for simplicity and an emotional directness as in the fox poems. There is not doubt that Ruth Padel is a ‘glittering’, brilliant and very talented poet. What will be interesting to see if, in the future, she has it in her to become a great one?

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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