Ruth Padel’s latest collection, shortlisted for the Eliot Prize, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is a book “of the book” in that it draws on narratives from Christianity, Islam and Judaism to comment on our “crossing this desert of life” (“Extract from the Travels of Ibn Jubayr”). The poems are finely wrought pieces inviting the reader to reflect on the possibility of healing in a broken world.
The act of “making” is central to this collection: Padel creates poems that forge a narrative about the redemptive potential in the very act of creation.The physicality of these “made objects” abounds; the cover illustration shows the delicate ivory inlay across the sound hole of the oud. The title poem documents its creation:
The first day he cut rosewood for the back,
Bent sycamore into ribs and made a belly
Another early poem also centres on a musical instrument. A cello in the hand of a wanderer is rendered in sensual detail :
The grain glowed peat-swirl
Brown of a mountain tarn, maroon under the f-holes
As if someone had been at it with mammoth blood.
The spike glittered between two stones. (“The Wanderer”)
In another, the chain carved from a broom-handle by a polish Jew who later died in Auschwitz haunts the speaker:
If I found a broom-handle
Broken from its head, I’d recognise
Something I could turn with a knife,
To linked medallions. (“The Chain”)
As well as the Abrahamic tradition, Padel also draws on Classical literature. The epigraph, referencing the sparing of the poet-minstral Phemius by Odysseus, valorises the power of the lyric and its capacity to voice contesting forces.This is shown in the sequence placed at the centre of the collection. “Seven Words and an Earthquake” is a response to the Seven Last Words of Christ (final statements made by Jesus on the cross). Padel wrote this as a commission: poems to read between the movements of Haydn’s quartet Opus 51 which takes the same theme. The sequence is marked by an informal, almost conversational, tone. Referring to Jesus as “you” the poems emphasise his humanity ultimately making his suffering more acute. The opening poem of the sequence has a filmic quality. The “camera-eye” pans the scene:
Olives in blue-tissue mist. Sunrise in the wadi
one Friday in spring. Bare creviced hills
pink-threaded with cyclamen and flax,
wild almond in bloom and leaves of the rock
rose, green on grey stone. (“I Forgiveness” )
This is so much more than a rendering of colour and texture. The landscape is infused with the whispers of the ordeal that is to come. The olives evoke Jesus’ “agony” in Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The “bare- creviced” “pink-threaded” hills take on a visceral quality intensified later where the image of the “pink-threaded” hills reappears as the “capillaries” which “broke like straw / And leaked into your pores”.
The graphic corporeality of the crucifixion continues with “squaddies / expert in the flay, who sliced skin off your back”, and “each arm through brachial / plexus, root-nerve, nape”, ending with a psychological explanation of forgiveness: “So you displace. You think of others”. Similarly in “III Relationship”, Mary, Jesus’ mother, remembers his childish fears: “he was shy in the playground. / Afraid of heights”. The power of this sequence comes from this very concrete sense of the humanity and frailty of Jesus, not a meditation on divinity so much but a study of human endurance and its capacity for mercy.
In the final poem of the collection, “Facing East”, Maggi Hambling’s sculpture “Scallop” becomes an objective correlative for both our alienation from and identification with each other. Just as the scallop shell appears as two shells but is joined at the core so:
We identify. Some chasm through the centre
Must be in and of us all [.]
The poem’s final line offers some promise of recovery: “Making is our defence against the dark”.