Her eyes are pulled to a fixed point above us and she seems to find her words only there. Her voice carries, as strange and fluid as her movement: Ruth Padel is quite the performer and she is performing with an aim – she has clear messages. Her poems are enacted rather than spoken, recited not read. In fact it is so enjoyable that we are even prepared to forgive the quality of her slides (as informative and interesting as they are, the photo quality is not great – perhaps this adds to the conversational, natural atmosphere). Her stories are natural and we, the audience, are happy to meander with her trail of thought. Sometimes it gets so far you aren’t sure if she’s lost her trail, but then she comes full circle and dives into the next poem. There is a lot of movement to her: be it her meandering speaking style, the lilt to her voice or, most importantly, the migration of people and animals in her poetry. The subject of her latest volume of poetry mixed with prose, from which she was reading, is migration. The Mara Crossing draws seemingly heterogeneous strands of migration and ties them together. A descendant of Charles Darwin, she is naturally inclined to describe the social impetus to move in terms of the biological. Padel speaks of the migration path of the bar-headed geese over Mount Everest, where they treacherously fly year on year and many die. Apart from this being a literally amazing feat, the question begs to be asked: why? Why not just fly around? The answer lies first in history and then in biology: the flight path was there before the mountains and genetic (would the drive to fly for food and nesting grounds also be social?) determinism literally drives them over the same path, adapting as the years go by so that they can survive the treacherous conditions. The adaptation takes the form of the haemoglobin in these birds absorbing oxygen faster than other birds and their capillaries penetrating deeper into their muscles so that they can get more oxygen. The migration paths of the bar-headed geese pre-date the Himalayas and it seems beautifully absurd that their haemoglobin and capillaries would change, rather than their genetic programming. It is a story you can tell she loves to tell. It is the story of the need to travel; the impetus to move.
There does not have to be a difference between us and the birds – after all we’re all from somewhere else. This line, which was also the title of the event, comes from her poem First Cell which takes us back to the beginning from whence we all came: born in a deep-sea vent, synthesised/by lightning in a reducing atmosphere/or carried here by meteorite, we’re all/from somewhere else. We’re all one in our origin. This includes the birds, animals, sea creatures and, of course, all of humanity. Padel likes to add the human element to the biological and at the end of this poem the algae, which performs the world’s first magic, are tiny horseman of the apocalypse. There is more than enough room for magic and folk stories in the poems and these mystical elements are intertwined with the scientific. Padel is incredibly well informed. She is more than just a poet, she is a biologist and this shines through in the poems. She remarks how much she enjoys using the fantastic biological terminology (and I am inclined to agree – I mean what’s not to love about the bioluminescence brigade.) But for all the deep knowledge, the two things which, for me, are the most important about her writing are firstly that she emphasises that we are animals and we have to migrate. Like the birds, which she so obviously loves, who migrate in order to survive, so must humans – humans from war-torn countries, humans with no money, or for whatever reason. And secondly, she brings an element of magic into the biological, she doesn’t hesitate to deny that classical division, which says either science or humanity.
The first point, that we are like animals and need to migrate, is quite bluntly put in her final poem. It is the final poem she reads, and though it is probably my least favourite, I think it illustrates the point rather well. In Time to Fly the first few lines tells the whole story (and the rest is a continuation along the same theme): You go because you heard a cuckoo call. You go/because/you’ve met someone, you made a vow, there are no/more/grasshoppers. You go because the cold is coming, spring is coming, soldiers are coming […] You go because the world/rotates. The idea is to emphasise the diversity of reasons for going. There is no essence. No one reason to go for all people, for all creatures, but there is one trend which ties all of us together: the need to go. I think this message is incredibly socially important and, as Padel herself hints in a veiled allusion, is not how migration is viewed in our society. Part of how she impresses this message on her audience is by explicitly telling us between her poems. This is very similar to how The Mara Crossing reads – poems interspersed with prose. In fact, Padel herself has said that she felt the need to explicitly put her message in the form of prose, because the nature of poetry is that poems are interpreted and the intended meaning can be lost or changed in the mind of the reader.
The second point, about the coexistence of being a human and science, and explaining one in terms of the other, is articulated perfectly in my fiancée’s favourite of her poems, Nocturne. This poem is both simple and complex. It begins with her imagining her dead father examining the sea at sundown. The sea becomes a whole rising movement, each creature following another for food. This underworld society, with the jellyfish as stars, is her unconscious at night and everything is rising upwards to the surface. As she beautifully puts it: the book of the sea shredding as it unfolds/and the whole procession white as aluminium -/this suits my dad, he is, after all, a ghost. The social is embedded in this process: her mind works like the sea – the unconscious rises at night and then, at first light, the delicate descent begins. This is all wonderfully made relative by the ambiguous ending: The world is not all black/and all white. You are never safe. Like the fish who follow one another for food and stark reality that they are all in danger, we are never free from, not only our unconscious, but the same process which is killing the fish. We, like them, are mortal. But the world is not all black and all white. There is beauty to the movement of the sea, the hunting ground is a wonderful place. There is so much beauty to nature and to the scientific and we are all part of this process. We cannot stay forever.