BOOKS: A fine excess with a worthless troll
REMBRANDT WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU by Ruth Padel, Chatto pounds 7.99
Sunday 24 May 1998
Rembrandt ... follows the course of a love affair in which desire and sense are at odds. Its beginning is expressed with a kind of astonished glee, not untainted by nervousness. "This isn't happening," she bluffs, wanting to "play it down", pleading with someone to "put it out with the cat ... / Book it a package deal." But it does happen, of course, and in a big way.
She is grappling here with the eternal conundrum that you can't choose who you love. Always in the wings are the man's children and presumably a wife as well. At times, her passion seems dangerously intense, self- denying, and uncomfortably adulatory: he is "the one thing / That'll hold me". With him she is, as she unforgettably puts it, "a flying bit of vertical velcro". But this isn't a book about comfort, it's an annal of the dangers and risks of falling in love.
Sadly, whether fact, fiction or fantasy, the man is clearly a worthless troll. "Party-Time" is a masterpiece, achieving a precarious balancing- act between the textuality of the poem and her uncontainable grief. They are at a party, "every cell ... / In my body aches / To touch you", and in between stanzas that are obliterated by her falling tears - "[Something dropped out here, the paper / Feels brittle, / Stained with a splash]" - she asks, "why do you drape round / Every woman in the room?" The worst of it is, she knows that "I've given my heart / To something I need protection from ... / A hobnailed boot."
There are moments of unity between them. Although we are never given a picture of the man more complete than peeked-at snatches ("your shoulders and spine", "this blue-white moss you call your hair"), it is the physical side of the relationship that inspires her to smelt words and allusions into images of a peculiar, powerful beauty: "Here you are ... / Holding me up on your thighs, with that lava-flow / We know as city moonlight / Pasting neon, nitrogen, / And old stars / Round the room."
There is an addictive elasticity between her sheer linguistic genius and the traumatic subject matter. It makes for very good poetry. I just hope for her sake that it means she's got it out of her system, and sent the troll packing.
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