Ruth Padel, “Salon Noir”

This is a remarkable poem. You can link to an earlier version of its text than the one in Emerald by following this link to the website, where there’s also an interview with Padel.

The poem opens “When we went down into the cave / this summer”. I’ve had a nagging sense of something oracular and dramatic lurking behind those breathless rhythms and it suddenly hit me what it was – the opening of Ezra Pound’s Canto I:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship

Random association on my part? I doubt it. This canto, the translation of a translation of a passage in Homer, describes Odysseus’s journey to the underworld to take counsel of the dead Tiresias. He meets many ghosts, including that of his mother, so there’s a very close thematic similarity between it and “Salon Noir”. I think the hinted counterpoint between Pound’s bardic declamatory style and the intimately personal tone of Padel’s opening is an example of her skill in invoking and overlaying different voices, in this case by allusion. From the beginning we’re being subliminally primed to see the journey into the cave as a journey to the underworld. We’d soon be seeing it like that anyway, of course, but I think this first planting of the seed in our unconscious makes the imaginative identification seem that much smoother and more inevitable.

It’s the speaking voice of this first section that I’m most interested in, though, or the dramatic contrast between the voice of this first section and that of the second, beginning “Take nothing         said the guide”. Something that particularly impresses me in Emerald is Padel’s skill in modulation, making quite radical changes of tone, style and rhythm seem to happen in a smooth, natural and integrated way. I’ve called Padel’s rhythms here breathless. That’s one thing that creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy. Another is the low-key diction, another the way the poet seems to be taking for granted that we’ll know who “we” are, who “both of them” are, who “everyone” is, as we might in a conversation among familiars. She seems to speak from within a situation, under immediate emotional pressure and to people who’ll share an understanding of that pressure. What she says largely comes out as a series of associative gulps or gasps in the plainest of plain language. Any of the following could be imagined as literal transcriptions of exclamations in response to what someone else has said: “Both of them dead within six hours!” “On the same night!” “A hundred miles apart!” “My mother and my aunt!” The lack of punctuation increases the sense of a flustered, unstructured flow in which the facts that matter leap out naked and essential, choosing themselves, not chosen by an organising mind. But of course what’s there and how it’s presented has been chosen and organised by the poet. This organisation seems subtle enough in the version published on the website, but tiny changes in the version published in Emerald refine it still further – the removal of “in the Pyrenees” from the second line and of “we all loved” from “in the family house we all loved”, and some changes of line break. The language draws complementary strengths from utter plainness – “everyone upset” – and from very poetic phrasing, of the kind you might imagine as flowing from Yeats’ pen – “our gentle        daring        painter”. That leaps out and seizes the mind because of the way its unrestrained lyricism contrasts with the starkness of the phrases surrounding it, but it fits in too – punctuated purely by spaces, it reads like a series of gasps of private discovery, not the outward-facing declaration of something already decided that it would have seemed if it had been punctuated by commas.

Spacing is vital to movement within the section. It also helps bring out the architecture of the whole, making it easier to see how firmly the first sentence is supported by its beginning and end: “When we went down into the cave … we were each a little afraid.” Between that beginning and end we have a flow of parentheses suggesting the bubbling up of ideas whose life in the moment is independent of the larger argument, whose importance, in other words, is purely intrinsic. And in the three short sentences that follow we have examples of the book’s easiness of transition between intensity and comedy (“The young      apparently       were thinking of vampires”) and a down to earth realism that earths the poetry (“For me it was breaking an ankle”).

It’s the next change of gear that’s truly magical, though – the change from the fluttery, flustered movement of the first section to the musical clarity and authority of the second. Here we draw closer to Pound’s epic and oracular voice, but with a crucial difference. There’s something comically self-important about Pound’s speaker, and the strenuous affectation of his language gives a taint of unreality to everything he says, threatening to tip its dramatic power into melodrama. Padel’s remarkable achievement is that while she makes the guide’s words echo with myths of the descent to the underworld, she does so with a simplicity that seem to me part of the profound humanity of her poem. The sheer ordinariness of the words is crucial. It gives the poetic moment its modesty. It grounds it and its mythical resonance in simple reality, a reality reduced to bare essentials. So much is easy to say. It’s also easy to say that the change of tone from the first section largely depends on the shift from a seemingly unstructured flow to a series of terse, tightly organized direct and indirect commands in a series of three-line stanzas. What I can’t pin down or describe is the music of the section, although that’s the very feature that gives it its extreme beauty, that makes the contrast with the previous section so moving and disturbing, and that has made me come back to trying to comment on this poem! It’s something I can only feel, whether in a soaring of the spirit at the very sound of the phrase “a girl / from the green hills of the Ariège” (the line end pause after “girl” is crucial to the effect) or in submission to the stony fall of what follows:

Take nothing         said the guide         a girl
from the green hills of the Ariège
who knew every centimetre of the caves.

Leave behind
all bags and mobile phones.
You’re not allowed to take pictures

and you’ll need your hands.
The path is slippery
broken         rough.

You have to crouch
you’ll be carrying a heavy torch
but don’t touch the walls

if you stumble. Even your breath
each in-and-out of oxygen
does a little destroying.

Thematically, that soaring of the spirit at the mention of green anticipates the beautifully poised ending of the whole poem, in which acceptance of death and loss brings a sharpened joy in life:

We came back changed. We saw black rock
jagged round the entrance       the golden eye
of afternoon. Those who came before
…….the dancers         the mothers         were gone into the hill.
But the mountains         rising one behind the other
were herds of green bison         drifting away into the sky.

Who knows, I may come back to it. Emerald is a book to reread endlessly. However, I’m fairly sure that my next post on it will be a review written some months ago and due to appear shortly in The North.



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