‘An Inconsolable loss’, Mumbai Mirror, Times of India, July 2018
It’s so cool here!” says Ruth Padel, as she steps out into a monsoonal evening in Colaba. “London is the Sahara. The parks are all brown, there hasn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and it was 36 degrees the day I flew to Mumbai.” In our city to launch her new book of poems, Emerald (Chatto & Windus), within hours of touching down, Padel shows no trace of jet lag. She is all set to embrace new experiences with her characteristic abundance of energy, curiosity and delight.
Distinguished poet, novelist, literary critic, and Professor of Poetry at King’s College, London, Padel is a Fellow both of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society of London. She has become increasingly preoccupied with the catastrophic effects that disruptive changes in weather cycles wreak on animal and human behaviour. In her 2012 book, The Mara Crossing, she engages with the crises of ecological devastation and migration both natural and forced, and how these shake up established ideas of who belongs and who does not. “Everything begins with migration,” she observes. “Humans migrate, animals migrate, cells migrate within our bodies. Life on earth began with the migration of a cell. We were all wanderers once. We have all come from somewhere else.”
The tiger and the elephant bring her to India. Her 2004 non-fiction book, Tigers in Red Weather, is partly a journal of her travels in tiger country across Eastern Russia, China, Sumatra, the Sundarbans, and South India. This straddling of the literary and scientific domains runs in the family. Padel is a direct descendant of Charles Darwin, through her grandmother, Nora Barlow, who was the seminal evolutionist’s granddaughter and edited his writings.
Padel has often been asked whether this heritage is a burden or a blessing. “When I think of some of my cousins who are scientists, I know how Darwin’s legacy must weigh on them,” she replies. “But I went off in another direction, into Classics, poetry and fiction, and at first thought I was quite free of it!” Trained as a classicist, Padel studied and taught Ancient Greek. On the wave of the gender revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, she became one of Oxford’s first female Fellows, breaching what had until then been a male preserve.
Padel also committed herself to the culture of the Eastern Mediterranean, immersing herself in Crete and learning to speak demotic Greek. Two years ago, she visited the island of Lesbos, temporary refuge for thousands of men, women and children fleeing the chaos in Syria, and bore witness to their suffering. Her collaborative work made with the Syrian-British artist Issam Kourbaj, Dark Water, Burning World, was shown at the British Museum last year.
Emerald, Padel’s latest collection of poems, her eleventh, is a homage to her mother, Hilda Padel, a naturalist, who passed away last year aged 97. These darkly luminous poems speak of the journey into the subterranean realm of the afterlife, and are suffused with the memory and promise of joy. They are veined with a daughter’s inconsolable sense of loss: “When your mother dies/there’s no one left to hold the sky.” And again, a burst of affectionate pride in the loved parent’s committed rationalism: “She hated pink hydrangeas marzipan/woolly thinking and pretence… She believed in hard fact.”
If Emerald is dedicated to the mystery of death, Padel’s previous collection, Tidings, was about the mystery of birth. “When my editor asked me to consider writing a Christmas book, I was sceptical,” says the poet. The daughter of a psychoanalyst father and a naturalist mother, she “grew up with Freud looking over one shoulder and Darwin over the other, so I wasn’t brought up Christian.” Her access to Christian themes was through sacred music (at Oxford, she sang in the Schola Cantorum, one of the UK’s longest established chamber choirs, and when she lived in Paris, she sang in the Choir of Église Saint-Eustache).
Vitally, the Christmas story resonated for her with contemporary political urgencies. King Herod, enraged at the possibility of a contender’s birth, orders a massacre of infants, and the Holy Family is forced to flee into Egypt. Tidings is “about refugees and the homeless. The Holy Family should be the patron saints of asylumseekers. And people who are nominally Christian, but build walls to keep people out, should give this some thought.”
As Emerald closes, with a descent into the Niaux caves in south-western France, with their stunning Palaeolithic drawings of bison and horses, Ruth Padel weaves the themes of mortality, love, suffering and courage together in lambent phrases: “I imagined the voice of Orpheus/ his aria to life and hope/ ringing out in the kingdom of the dead./ Here in deep earth the black/ blossom of mourning still sifting within me”.