Ruth Padel is a British poet, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Zoological Society of London. She started out as a classicist at Oxford and has lived many years in Greece and Crete.
Her poetry collection Darwin – A Life in Poems is an intimate verse biography of her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, bringing out connections between his personal life and his work. She has also written an acclaimed book on tiger conservation, Tigers in Red Weather, for which she explored forests in South East Asia, Russia, China and the Himalaya as well as India. Where the Serpent Lives her debut novel, published in 2010, the Year of Biodiversity, has a background of conservation in tropical jungle.
Please visit: www.ruthpadel.com
Suppose you’re walking on a cliff-top
Back where you used to live, in Greece.
The island where your friend Kay,
Who’s dying in an Athens flat of emphysema
On a round-the-clock line of oxygen, grew up.
There’s nothing to be done. You’ve flown to see her
Twice. You’ll go again.
Unstoppable cicadas, hot-resin smell
Of pines. The sweat – you’ve forgotten how it rivulets
Between the breasts, how wet is constant.
Sea: cream-turquoise halogen and luminous green silk
Spread out below to archipelagos
Of rocks and nibbled inlets. Islands, islands. Milk
Opalescent shivers and frills at every rim.
Suppose a stripy butterfly, black-white
Albino tartan, large as a hand, appears stage right
As you’re walking up the road to a brandy-snap
Red beach, to find your daughter and her friend
In snorkels, Factor Twenty-Five and Aqua Babe
Sarongs. You stop, for this unfolding scrap
Of animate origami
Haunting orange clods of earth
Below the olives. Eyelash antennae;
Proboscis, siphoning honey you can’t see:
It settles by you like an omen, zebra wings outspread
On a tiny, dusty, pink-yellow flowerhead. Some vetch
(Your mother would know the Latin
Name) at the empty road’s pale edge.
Imagine this has been a terrible year for death,
Loss, all-gone-wrongs. The bull-waves’ neuron glitter
Leaps the cliff. Swallows, on a clef
Of italic phone-wire, dab their next
Month’s leaving song over noon sky’s indigo razzle.
A pop request you sang years ago
Bellies from “Antigone Hotel” pool stereo.
I zoe, i zoe san chelidoni,
Fevgi ap ta cheili mou. “Life like a breath,
Like a swallow, is leaving my lips.”
Suppose your dad had taught you ancient Greek,
The key to all of this. Blue sea. Friends.
The sparkling, stupidly gorgeous islands.
Even the daughter. Songs.
Suppose you’re looking for a way to remember him well.
He could only be what he was. His gift was black, OK,
But made you want to learn, find new things, tell
About them. With his bride’s relations adept in
Botany, or ornithology, he got up for her
A knowledge they didn’t have: lepidoptera.
This specimen has popped into the olive grove for him.
He loved, by teaching what he loved, and he loved
Greece. Ruins, moths of the psyche, language, myth.
Those are the things in him that led you here.
Back-tracking twenty years, you remember seeing him off
At Athens Airport. How his eyes behind their glasses
(The irises’ circumference, like yours, darker than the rest)
Had filled, amazingly, with tears.
Poetry in this post: © Ruth Padel
Published with the permission of Ruth Padel