THE SUNDAY POEM: Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 38 Peter Redgrove

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The Independent Culture
The Visible Baby

A large transparent baby like a skeleton in a red tree,

Like a little skeleton in the rootlet-pattern;

He is not of glass, this baby, his flesh is see-through,

Otherwise he is quite the same as any other baby.

I can see the white caterpillar of his milk looping through him,

I can see the pearl-bubble of his wind and stroke it out of him,

I can see his little lungs breathing like pink parks of trees,

I can see his little brain in its glass case like a budding rose;

There are his teeth in his transparent gums like a budding hawthorn twig

His eyes like open poppies follow the light,

His tongue is like a crest of his thumping blood,

His heart like two squirrels, one scarlet, one purple

Mating in the canopy of a blood-tree;

His spine like a necklace, all silvery-string with cartilages,

His handbones like a working-party of white insects,

His nerves like a tree of ice with sunlight shooting through it,

What a closed book bound in wrinkled illustrations his father is to him!

Prolific holder of the Prix Italia and the Queen's Gold Metal for Poetry; a Cambridge contemporary of Ted Hughes with an equally mythological-cum-physical engagement with nature but in a very different register. Redgrove is metaphor's UK priest: a magician of word and image. Many collections of exuberant, visionary, surreal, glittering poem; a second Selected due in October.

W hat you notice instantly are the metaphors and spell- like incantatory repetitions, but it is the structure that tells you what the poem is about. The poet compares the baby to organic things, first a skeleton, then growing things. But he winds up imagining the baby seeing dad (by implication, himself) as an artefact - whose point is communication, yet which is (ironically) a cliche for what you cannot see or understand - a closed book. The stem of the word illustrations means "light". But dad's illustrations here are wrinkled. The baby has colours and light inside him. He has sunlight shooting through him; his eyes follow light; but he cannot read leathery old dad. It is a playful poem, a love poem, but its structure reminds you the relationship is unequal.

Soundwise, K T L (large, transparent, like, little, rootlet-pattern, glass, flesh, quite) flicker throughout the poem and prepare for the repeated can. They are the main consonants of two key words. First skeleton which tells us this poem is a vision of innerness: about suddenly seeing into the depth of life - that mad clarity which hits you when you have a baby or fall in love. And secondly, like: the big word for comparison, this poem's mode of operation. The poem is about life and like: the bare bones of life and the way we see it through the mysteries of metaphor. It is about the way (as George Eliot put it) we cannot say what something is, except by saying what it is not.

Halfway through the second stanza, his and him gradually encroach on I can; from the opening of the third, I has disappeared. Grammatically, there are governs all the second half except the exclamation in the last line. Musically, his becomes increasingly important. Its Z begins in trees and rose, we get his teeth and his transparent gums in the next line, the poppies, handbones, nerves, and the last line's closed and illustrations lead up to his father is, where the poet hands the climax over to the baby in another sound: not his but him.

The work of handing over to baby is done especially by the verbs. Apart from is at the end, the only verbs that belong to father (or poet) are can see and stroke. The baby has loads of exciting verbs which prefigure his life as his eyes follow the light. The father's verbs are receptive, static: his life is closed, the baby's waiting on the touchline.

The tone is all play and tenderness (little, stroke it out of him), switching from the wildly imaginative (pink parks of trees) to the playfully solemn (a working-party of insects). Metaphor is a key way of seeing the world with children (the way we enjoy them learning the world) as well as of writing poems. But even metaphor works to hand life over from father to baby. The laughing tenderness is dad's, but freshness and surprise belong to the baby. You could say the poem pits the poet's artifice, his "like", against the baby's surprising, active verbs and what he is. The baby, in the end, has all the cards. He is transparent and large; this poem is about him; all his father is doing, enclosed in his own book, is writing it.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`' is taken from The Moon Disposes (Secker)