Feature: Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet and author. She began life as a classicist studying ancient Greek, and has spent much of her life in Greece, especially Crete. She is a passionate wildlife conservationist and also a musician. She now lives in London and has published twelve poetry collections, seven non-fiction works and a novel. Ruth is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and Zoological Society of London, and Professor of Poetry at King’s College London where she hosts a popular series of Poetry And Events, combining poetry with other areas of life and learning. In July, she will publish her second novel, Daughters of the Labyrinth, set on Crete.

Indelible had the honor of hosting Professor Ruth Padel in its Indelible Festival of Literature, which took place via Zoom in March 2021 (the recording of her session can be accessed here). In the opening festival event, Prof. Padel read from her new poetry collection, Beethoven Variations, which narrates the life of the famous composer in verse. Following her reading was a discussion on poetry, paralleled with music, both food for the soul. Prof Padel, on her composing of Beethoven Variations, commented that during the writing of her collection, empathy was an important factor for her: “Empathy for trying to open myself to what he was feeling, and I think a lot of poems come from that really…about feeling out from not just yourself, but into the world”. Poetry can be either be a journey into the self or out of it, for “Poetry, like music, is movement, and you know the right way back. In the fifth century, you had the idea of a foot of music, so you are traveling on your feet through the musical journey; but journeys can be in so many different sorts of lines. They can be circular—it can be a spiral journey; it can return on itself in a ring or it could go out into the horizon and never come back again…and I think thought is like that too. Thought can return to something or go forward or come back in a different form. And all those are variations.”

During the festival’s final feast, the poetry grand finale event, Prof. Padel shared some food-infused poems with the audience. These poems are also shared here, in this issue of Indelible, which you can find after a brief chat with Ruth Padel, who shares her thoughts on:

What inspires her to write poetry:

“It’s mysterious and I never know in advance: – anything any phrase, sight, shadow, thought”

The reasons of including food in her poems

“Because it is part of life, and poetry is life!”

The kind of parallelism she would make between the literary and the culinary:

“I love cooking, but can’t follow a recipe – I have to go my own way, I think that’s true of my writing too.”

On whether she finds herself influenced by Charles Darwin’s poetic style, knowing that she had also written his biography in her famous poetry collection Darwin: A Life in Poems:

“I like his directness and imaginative verve and the way he sees the big picture in little things.”

Indian Princess Picks Lover out from Gods 

Thank God we cast a spot of shadow in our lives,  
said the Mahabharata bride 
facing five versions of her groom - 
the man himself, plus four male gods,
four dead-spit images
self-xeroxed in his shape - who recognized 
his heartbeat, the man she'd have to part 
with, by the shadow at his heel. 

Gods don't go round casting shadow.
Things we do and feel 
(as a leader in The Independent 
out it afterwards) are incomplete. 
Imperfect. Therefore real.

The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup

How can I paint Winter Landscape with Temples 
and Travellers, or Five-Colour Parakeet 

on Blossoming Apricot Tree? 
The oracle boxes are empty 

and the Minister with a Brief for Charming Explanation
has signed a licence (to the army) for the forest to be cut, 

ordered satin linings to his red kimono 
and is drinking with the General 

in what he says is the best restaurant in town, 
attended by two fifteen-year-old girls:  

handpicked, translucent brown jade.
Black tree stumps cool on the mountain, 

sawmills slide out planks a hundred an hour 
and white ash blooms over the river

while the courtier treats the General 
to tiger penis soup, five hundred linu a bowl. 

I'll paint the bare burnt mamillated plain, 
Flame of the Forest in its white and scarlet,    

jack fruits and jacaranda, the stag in the sky 
and the naming of stars, the three definitions of twilight 

in Yunnan province where white-handed gibbons 
used to sing their love duets.  

I'll paint the truth of illusion, a glossary 
of atmospheric optics, 

and Guanyin, Guardian of Compassion. 	
I'll pay particular attention to her smile. 

The Miracle of the Fish-Counter in Budgeons

All facing the same way, tear-proof painted enamel
laid out on crumbled ice like a racing shoal -
of, let’s say, salmon. I see them migrating
from the wild Atlantic or Pacific
they’ve known for five years, maybe six, 
back to the river where they hatched  

to leap together in parallel just like this,
hurling their silver-paper forms against the exact 
current which swept them down when they were smolts 

before their mystery began, that metamorphosis 
from fresh to salt when their kidneys changed, 
their gills reversed the direction of their frantic pulse 

and the adult fish shot into open sea. And now, 
changing again, they eat no more, burning the energy 
sea-stored in years of freedom, for the release 

of spawning: to reproduce in turn the perfect 
workmanship we pass, dreamwalking 
through the supermarket’s mazy hieroglyph: 

all this crinkled glitter, each mirror-glazed button-eye 
stamped on the ice like a mourning brooch
collecting the glare of the strip light. 

Or eels born in the shoreless sea, who journey 
a thousand miles then thousands more 
through the bruised Mediterranean

to Ohrid and Crni Drim, to live in lake mud glue
like a man who has forgotten how to love; 
then suddenly return 

thousands of sea-miles again 
to the Caribbean. As if go home and breed, 
go home and die were the norm. 

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