Ruth Padel’s Emerald – review

Ruth Padel, Emerald, 80 pp, £10, Chatto & Windus, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, Westminster, London SW1V 2SA

In Emerald, emotional intensity flowers out of artistic restraint and its carefully measured statements achieve wide resonance. The book brings together poems prompted by the death of the poet’s mother and poems about the cutting and mining of emeralds or more generally about greenness. Grief and loss lie alongside beauty and hope, mundane experience is juxtaposed with travel, history, scientific analysis, fairytale and myth. Modes of discourse shift accordingly, though it hardly ever feels as though contrast between modes is the point. The shifts are more like the play of light in a piece of opal as you turn it: one colour simply changes into another.

Barely punctuated except by full stops, line endings and spaces within lines, the poems combine assured control of rhythm and syntax with an air of breathless tentativeness. Particularly in those that are strongly indented, it’s as though ideas and images come together as we read, like the shape-shifting forms taken on by a flock of starlings in flight. These impressions are vivid and intense while they last. They and the poet’s arcs of thought form clear structures in our minds but because they’re so little signalled by punctuation we have to feel our way carefully though them, and they seem to dissolve into white space as we move on.

In the moving individual poems about Padel’s mother, rare but powerful direct expressions of emotion cut through prosaic details of the processes of aging and dying. The mother’s personality is evoked in anecdotes of her past, like the poignant ‘Gorey Bay, Jersey, 1933’, and in snatches of convincing dialogue. An example of the latter appears when a fanciful rewriting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 is followed by the gently devastating ‘Appraisal’:

I liked that        said my mum.
Makes it all sound
not quite so bad. Read it again.
What’s the main of light?

Superficially unrelated poems about the green flash at sunset, emerald mining or a rare humming bird are made to interact with poems about the mother by echoing or playing against something in their feeling, phrasing or ideas. However, it’s the opening and closing poems, ‘The Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Salon Noir’ that bind the book into a unity.  ‘Salon Noir’ in particular broadens into a searching meditation on life and mortality, setting the mother’s death in the context of geological time and the human journey since the Old Stone Age without losing touch with the personal or evaporating into abstraction and generality. A description of a trip into a prehistoric painted cave, it opens with the poet and her family still in mourning and includes a tender tribute to the mother’s gift for noticing animals, implicitly related to the eye of the Palaeolithic artist. This is interwoven with other themes – art, rebirth, the wonder of life – in a way it would take a chapter to explore. Literal description is beautifully interwoven with references to myth. Explicit allusions to Orpheus bring out implicit mythic resonances elsewhere, as here:

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.

Return from the underworld to the bright light of day is a kind of rebirth, a recovery of beauty, hope and a faith in life that implicitly accepts transience and mortality:

     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.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost this review, written for The North issue 62. My earlier postings on Emerald, focusing more closely on individual poems, were written after this overview.

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