Ruth Padel's new book follows her verse biography of Darwin, and The Mara Crossing, an astonishing synthesis of science and art, prose and poetry on the theme of migration. Among the sometimes costive products of contemporary British poetry, these sustained feats of imagination have seemed at times almost perverse, at times like tours de force. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth displays a similar energy and ambition.
Padel's great characteristic is range. Her relatively long-lined, discursive poems tend to fill the page. Generous, on-rushing sentences, lightly punctuated with commas, create accumulating drive. They give the sense that everything must be included: every detail is valuable. In "The Wanderer", "The olive tree had been hard-pruned along its central branch/ and only the tips were in leaf, grey fingers stretching to light,/ but you could see new growth, a haze of turquoise rust." There's a note of enthusiasm, a sense of continual breathless excitement.
The rangy forms reflect an equally wide-ranging content. Making an Oud interweaves contemporary Middle Eastern politics, the history and culture of the Abrahamic religions, natural beauty and love poetry. This could be a risky strategy. No one involved in war, particularly religious conflict, sees themselves as having parity, and sometimes Padel skates close to conflation. Her poem of hope, after an arson attack on the restored synagogue on the Greek island of Hania, arrives at a pomegranate tree and "the soft blue stem of a Persian rose". It's like the ending of TS Eliot's "Little Gidding", but without the mono-culturalism.
Themes of migration leak in from previous work, and it's often ambiguous who is going where. "Landscape with Flight into Egypt", her re-imagination of that classic painterly theme, at first seems to concentrate on the painterly within the physical, "a blue inlet/ fretted with tow-coloured towns", "a red scatter of anemones". Gradually it becomes apparent that this carries the reader past the Christian story into an archetype of flight: "In front and behind/ are cities, all that sweet clustering of civilized./ In one, the massacre we're running from./ The other is asylum." But this is of course the point. Padel is not writing partisan polemic but attempting something much more difficult, a kind of cultural synthesis. As she says in "To Speak of Distance", "The task/ is […] to move between languages –/ […] Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek –// and map your journey to the shrine."
The title poem, which interleaves lines from the Song of Songs, is both a love poem and an elegy for a musician from Nazareth. It admits involvement, in other words.
Padel, a former classicist, explicitly writes from within the European cultural experience: there are poems here about Euripides and Pietr Brueghel, and for Josef Haydn's Easter string quartet cycle. But as her final poem points out, Europe has always been "Facing East". This meditation on conflict and history moves between Aldeburgh and Damascus, concluding that, "What will survive are meanings we have found/ in what the world has made." Ruth Padel finds such meanings everywhere in the natural and the human world.
Fiona Sampson's latest collection is 'Coleshill'. She is Professor of Poetry at Roehampton University