THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 26 Elma Mitchell

Eighty this year and still writing, born in Scotland in 1919, Mitchell had none of the female models of poets at an angle to male tradition (Bishop, Tsvetayeva, Plath) who sustained later generations of women. She created her strong, witty, original poems without them. I first met her work when reading with her and others for an anthology: we were all knocked sideways by her poised, potent, wicked delivery. If you ever get a chance to hear her, go. One New and Selected; poems in Penguin Modern Poets 6.

'After" in the title is a joke. This poem does not imitate Ruskin's conventionally lyrical vision of women, but mocks it as illusion. Between the lilies and roses of the first and last lines, it shows what woman's bodies really do and are, inverting male conventions of delicacy and strength. Distant from bodily reality, men sit behind mahogany (image of bourgeois alienation from physical work): their verbs are lean across, delicately manipulate. Tender gentle women have 37 violent verbs before go, sigh and find at the end, where they compose themselves to be seen as men (or any rate the great male guru of seeing) see them.

The form reflects women's traditional day, which begins and ends with illusion but is a savage whirl of activity between. It starts with a conventional rhymed (abac) quatrain (to fit Ruskin's conventional image) whose last words secret places introduce a five-line unrhymed stanza (abandoning formal symmetry), and the repetition of armed as real, no longer metaphorical. The weapons are not warm rags but knives. Women's reality is nothing to do with daintiness. The stanza ends in terrible chemistry. This goes on in women's secret places of work but also, implicitly, their bodies. From gutting to pulverising, participles teaming with hard consonants (G, ST, K, B, Z) foreshadow the central stanza's machine-gun, virtuoso list of gloves-off verbs from killing and asphyxiating to scrubbing, tucking, zipping, encouraging excretion.

The shock, that in order to look after, women must stab and destroy, begins with armed and assaulting in the first stanza, develops in the second (holding hearts to bleed, scalding), and is established as the norm by the third, especially where beat and grammar change. So far, we've had iambic rhythm. (The word "iamb" is the same shape, u -, as its metrical unit.) Dead snap by the neck is no iamb. Call it syncopated, call it a spondee (two longs, - -): any way you hear it, dead snap breaks the iambic run, sparking off a roller-coaster of harsh consonants (Ks, Bs, Gs, Zs, Ts), mid-line breaks (at pulpy, tepid) and savage verbs. From holding hearts to bleed to steering screaming cleaners round snags, the verbs have extra emotional meanings which insist on the violence involved in caring for people. At first the importunate young and incontinent old: but we are also heading back to those delicate males who get pocketed in the next stanza. The repeated needles at the end show how the comfort women dispense (like chemists - remember terrible chemistry) comes from sharpness and stabbing: from women's power to hurt as well as enfold.

That point made, the poem apostrophises women's bodies, source of that power. Physically, it marks a change of tone with huge hands!, another heavy spondee, rhythmically recalling dead snap.

Women are all volume (hands, voices, thighs, breasts). Men sink upside- down into (as it were) their pocket. Sex is the climax of the poem's anti- floweriness. The essence of women's secret places is bloody passages and hairy crannies, but men like to see it as fragrance; which woman therefore find outside themselves in cosmetics (mirrors, colours, odours). For men, women invert their essence (marked by the wordplay of all's over/ overalls). To suit the harmoniousness men see in women, the last stanza returns to harmony (the vowel- harmonies upstairs/hair, odours/roses) and, by completing the symmetry of four stanzas ringing the long anarchic centre, to order. Despite the splattering verbs, there has been symmetry and order in all the women's activity. Quickly consulting clocks, they produce lilies and roses dead on cue for the man, to sustain his delicately leaning, alienated, Ruskinian aesthetic.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Thoughts After Ruskin' is taken from People Etcetera: New and Selected Poems, Peterloo Poets (tel: 01822 834119).

Thoughts after Ruskin

Women reminded him of lilies and roses.

Me they remind rather of blood and soap,

Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,

Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:

Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,

Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,

Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,

Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,

- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.

Their distant husbands lean across mahogany

And delicately manipulate the market,

While safe at home, the tender and gentle

Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,

Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,

Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,

Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,

Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,

Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners

Around the snags of furniture, they straighten

And haul out sheets from under the incontinent

And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,

Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,

Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,

Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,

Contorting wool around their knitting needles,

Creating snug and comfy on their needles.

Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices

Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,

Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,

Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,

Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!

And when all's over, off with overalls,

Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,

Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,

And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,

Their essences of lilies and of roses.

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral