The Soho Leopard

Hallucinatory, lyrical, and passionately musical

The Soho Leopard explores our need for wildness and for stories, adding animal legend and zoological science to Ruth Padel’s glitteringly imaginative canvas. With her gift for bringing together experiences and tones of voice that normally stay far apart, she sweeps us from Dulwich Pizza Hut to ancient Siberia, King’s Cross to nineteenth-century Burma.
In poems resonating with sensuous delight in nature but also with loss and survival, we meet Socrates, urban foxes, Louisiana alligators, Mary Queen of Scots and the endangered Amur leopard. A Chinese painter, the artist in an age of extinction, searches for tigers in a forest destined for the sawmill, while the minister who sold it scoffs an aphrodisiac bowl of tiger-penis soup.

Chatto & Windus 2004, ISBN: 0701176210, Poetry Book Society Choice, Shortlisted for T S Eliot Prize 2004.

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“Impressively focussed and far-ranging. Silky poems slink up and ambush the reader with fresh perspectives”

“Elegant, allusively rich lines teeming with splendour: a poetic version of Darwin’s vision into the complex dependency between forms, feelings and ideas.”
Financial Times

”Weird, clever, playful poems about urban animals (sly foxes, sexy beasts, we’ve all met them): terrific!”
Independent on Sunday

“Fizz, brio and energy: there is no doubt Padel is a linguistic wizard. An eclectic postmodern mix of high culture and demotic experience is her hallmark: The Soho Leopard is her most daring and virtuoso yet. She allows her highly original imagination to reveal the world anew and executes this skill with sharp exactness.”
Poetry Wales

“Verbally exhilerating, utterly wonderful”
Hampstead and Highgate Express

“Her conversation is with metrical innovators like Hopkins and Dickinson. She hijacks tension from syncopated rhythm; but symmetry is also an important aspect of her technique. She proves poetry can talk about difficult concepts in a linguistically interesting, complex way without sacrificing sense and syntax”
Poetry London

“Sensual richness, rippling panther energy, restlessness matched in layers of searching description – a high-wire dance between human and animal, with a witty, richly-coloured treatment of the instinctive forces that propel humans towards each other.”

“Rigour, complexity and generosity, rich and rhythmic observation: whether in dense lyric description or sparer lines evoking the tiger’s power as living creature, myth, and symbol, Padel’s linguistic mastery and quality of observation yield her most engaging collection yet.”
Poetry Review

“A fascinating book. Padel’s tight-lipped verbal strength and poetic economy is delightful.”


Carol Rumens’ review of THE SOHO LEOPARD in Poetry London, Autumn 2004, spotlit the poems’ rhythm, technique and enjambement:


Ruth Padel is a highly literate writer. Her conversation is with the metrical innovators – Smart, Hopkins, Dickinson and, among contemporaries, Carol Ann Duffy:

I was never your devoted lover. It was gossip,
That. All wrong, I am the Amur leopard no
One knows about, the thirty-fifth; each eye
An emerald. I’m passing by Quo
Vadis, St Anne’s Court and Sunset Strip

On a summer evening trembling – water muscle
Breaking on the knife-
Edge of a dam – with promises of headlong
Encounters that might change a life.

In a symposium on “The State of Poetry” (Agenda, Autumn, 1989), Robert Crawford began and concluded his contribution with the question, What does a poet do? “What does a poet do? A poet enjambs.” He connected this interestingly with the break-up of Britain and the renaissance in Scottish writing. This metaphor of enjambement also connects powerfully with what women writers like Ruth Padel and Carol Ann Duffy do. They enjamb; they also caesurize (if such a verb may be permitted). They often do this literally, so that even relatively low-charged diction hijacks tension from the syncopated rhythm.

Padel goes farther: she also enjambs poetic registers (the colloquialism of “it was gossip, that” with the literary “summer evening trembling…”) and genres. This title poem is a love poem and a mythic narrative with some travelogue and lovely pantomime description redolent of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

Seams are allowed to show, are even advertised; as when she decides to switch pronouns on the seventh stanza (“Let’s take this out of self and call my leopard ‘her’). But symmetry is also an important aspect of Padel’s technique. Here, nine and four-stanza sections alternate, with all stanzas five lines in length; though the lines have a tendency to grow as the poem progresses, sacrificing their initial wily felinity as the speaker grows more interested in the psychology of the love affair that is the poem’s true concern.

While the legendary animals of this menagerie of a collection are mobile and colourful, they retain an air of artifice. Those set free from self and metaphor. alligators and foxes in particular, leap farther. Padel is a great teacher, tirelessly explaining and giving scientific ideas a slangy, classroom-thrilling life, weaving in quotations and references with the assiduousness of Marianne Moore plundering her National Geographics. Padel respects the reader’s intelligence, but also engages her own desire to make sense of the world. She proves that poetry can talk about difficult concepts in a linguistically interesting and complex way without severing the yoke of sense and syntax. Poets of the Obscurist school, and their apologists, please note.

“The Kings Cross Foxes” is a terrific sequence, an urban fox’s “calendar” that enjambs the year;s, the city’s, and the creature’s life-cycle. The titles of the poems themselves have multi-resonance (like “March: Seed Moon: Period of Becoming Aware”), and at moments there is a moving counterpoint between the rubbishy streetscape and the imagined pastoral: between condoms, beercans and “Lord Cappucino’s winged-handle empties”, and glimpses of a rural June’s “organdie hedgerows”.

This is not to imply that Padel sentimentalizes her foxes, or even laments their distance from a more natural environment: on the contrary, these poems celebrate the animal’s adaptive pluck, and relish his polluted, mucky urban world as does the fox himself, via that scernt-receptor-packed nose, “so granulated, wet and mad for pungency”. Readers will learn a good deal about foxes from this poem, but never lose sight of their wiry trajectories:

and it’s time to try the Mouse Leap, that four-paws fly-
jump, high-jump, copyright of every vulpine fox.
First go, by Grand Union Canal. No –
yes! – look – curved in mid-air,

a flash-scarlet circumflex, three foot above
earth, bindweed, and fag-ends. Then dive,
front paws first, to counteract up-leap of vole.
One squeak of fire, and then still.

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