Ruth Padel’s The Mara Crossing might easily be termed sui generis, if it didn’t helpfully explain its roots in the mediaeval prosimetrum in its opening chapter. Even knowing that it’s rooted in a rich tradition where prose and poetry are bound together, however, doesn’t bring us closer to explaining its scale, ambition or achievement. A study of migration, Padel’s interest ranges from the cells of the body to the flight patterns of wild geese, from dispelling the myth of mass lemming suicide to chatting to her daughter on Skype. Under a catch-all investigation of what it is to migrate, including the etymology of the terms involved, she explores rootlessness, asylum, displacement and many of the other most pressing political concerns of our time in clear-sighted, lucid prose. Interestingly, for Padel the prose which makes up the majority of the collection is figured more as preamble than overpowering or pushy neighbour to the poems: ‘the prose interludes are not essays but introductions to each run of poems – as in a live reading poets introduce poems with a little information, so the audience knows something about them when they listen.’

Ruth Padel, The Mara Crossing and Learning to Make an Oud Nazareth, Chatto and Windus, London, 2012 and 2014, respectively.

We can certainly read the prose chapters in this sense, many of the poems in the collection are ones which would require a fair bit of setting up at a reading given their often complex scientific interest and terminology – ‘Cytoskeleton, little net/of peel and fibrous scaffolding/within the cytoplasm’ – and therefore the prose which precedes each run acts as a generous guide, at times making the chapter feel like notes and research building to the handful of poems which close it. Padel’s deep interest in and reading of, among other things, conservation, biology and semantics, however, means that the prose does more than act as mere prop or stage-setter, and as much as the poems are the driving force behind the book, the prose builds in its own right a rhythm and authority thanks to Padel’s ability to handle masses of material across a sweep of time and deliver it unfussily, cogently and with a great deal of diligent sensitivity.

The Mara Crossing of the collection’s title acts as a sort of anchoring metaphor, derived from the perilous journey undertaken by gazelle, wildebeest and zebra in order to get at the phosphorous-rich land waiting for them on the other side of crocodile-packed waters. As Padel reminds us, nature is profligate, and for the many that die attempting to make it to their own version of the promised land, more survive this crossing. The book is an investigation into why almost every species, including our own, make their equivalent journeys, taking such calculated and often desperate risks. In one of the most bracingly impassioned sections of the book, Padel exposes the ‘bitter’ and ‘deceptive’ connotations of ‘Mara’, before – via the comments pages of a newspaper – stating that it is hope which drives migration and issuing a plea for compassion and empathy. This is an important piece of writing, and it feels both achieved and earned when it comes – the effect of its contrast with the run of poems that follow it, including ‘Wetbacks’ and ‘Maltese Fishing Boat and Broken Net’ with its closing lines ‘Cut the rope! What would you do?/We lose our catch but we get home./A hundred are drowning – /why should we six die too?’ is all the more devastating for the righteous anger of their prose ‘introduction’.

It’s worth dwelling on both the righteous indignation of this section, and more widely on the political ambition and interest of the book, not least because it is such a rarity to find, at least with this degree of control and insight, in contemporary British poetry. The decision to include these introductory sections in prose is not, then, merely a means of allowing a gloss on otherwise difficult concepts and terms in the poems, it also – like lengthening a line or breaking metre – gives Padel scope to bring in more of the world, to develop important discussions and to clear the ground in order that her poetic gift might have access to hitherto unavailable subject matter, once it’s been properly set-up for the reader. The nuance and empathy required by her discussions of asylum – its historical roots and the modern stigma of the word – require a degree of unpacking which would be impossible to do without making too many artistic compromises in a lyric poem, with its requirement of density and explosive compression. By allowing herself to use prose – always a poet’s prose, if not prose poetry – Padel manages to break new ground with this ancient form, the prosimetrum, with each chapter displaying the concerns and swagger which have come to characterise her poems, albeit with a much broader palette. A chapter on ‘Strangers’, for example, flits back and forth in history, taking in Hopkins and Darwish as well as examining the Greek roots of the word for exile and Padel’s own visit to Madrid in 2006 where Brueghel’s paintings and TV images of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon appeared to parallel one another. In short, that kind of movement – back and forth in time, literary allusion, personal insight – has often been the kind of journey Padel’s poems have taken a reader on, albeit in a much shorter and more traditionally stanzaic, space.

As well as the crossing of the Masai Mara, another well-judged thread which runs through this expansive book is a series of deceptively small-scale meditations on Padel moving house, her garden, and the birds which visit it. Padel writes of her daughter, away in Bogota, and of packing up and moving on, reminding us always that the grand ideas behind migration, the movement of cells, birds or tribes is based on need, and on the attempt to establish a comfortable home in which to thrive. This rootedness, in a book about movement and searching, is perceptively done, and acts as a counterpoint to the more philosophical discussions of souls, and transmigration, assuring us that whichever route we are to be taken down there is a sense of roundedness at the back of it, and that our feet can remain planted on solid ground. Padel, towards the book’s close, makes the point that poetry and exile, or displacement, are common bedfellows, and that the draw of art is that it allows one to make sense of the journeys, both physical or inner. The collection’s dazzling closing poem, ‘Time To Fly’, with its long lines and litany of ‘You go because…’ is a suitably mobile and driving close to a book about flight of every kind, and its concluding phrase ‘You go because you must’, given everything that’s gone before it is a masterstroke of resonant understatement.

Without Padel’s immersion and investigation, evident in the prose of The Mara Crossing, the poems of that collection wouldn’t have been possible, or even viable. In an interestingly analogous way, but for her fascination with the science and language of movement and migration, the poems of Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth could not have emerged as the visceral and arresting declarations that they are. There is no accompanying, or supporting, prose – aside from the notes at the back – but this latest collection has built on the gains made via the freedom Padel allowed herself in her previous collection, and more than ever these poems feel able to gather into themselves a huge range of history, allusion and learning without compromising their status as achieved lyrics. Having taken the lengthened step of the prosimetrum, Padel appears to have found a way of bolstering an already authoritative voice into one capable of reaching for the difficult register of rhetoric, and the results are consistently captivating.

There are a number of underlying movements in this new collection, which overlap and, together, create something like an ars poetica which combines faith and hope with an artisanal devotion. If it was hope that emerged as the driving force behind migration in The Mara Crossing, it’s also the keynote here, but not in a glib or saccharine sense – this is hardly poetry as self-help – but in a much more interestingly defiant, fallibly vulnerable one. ‘A Guide to the Church of Nativity in Time of Siege’ is a tour de force, a dramatic monologue which in its slow unfolding and subtly revealing use of inference looks back to Tennyson or Browning as much as a modern master of the genre such as Michael Donaghy. It also contains a line which resonates throughout the collection, helping to shape the philosophy of the book in its way – ‘In Arabic and Hebrew/verb to be does not exist. No Present, only Future/and the Past.’ That’s not to say that this collection is one steeped in nostalgia or prediction, but – at a far more interestingly central sense – one in which the idea of present, and presence, has to be enacted and rescued, rather than taken for granted. It is a book which has both the long view of history, as alluded to in the same poem – ‘even emperors bow to time’. This is also hinted at in ‘The Hebrew for Egypt Means Narrow’ where the loss of certainty, or easy answers, is presented as our state but the opposite is a constriction which is no more appealing, resulting in the somewhat Arnoldian statement that ‘We are out in the wilderness now’.

If The Mara Crossing’s poems were supported by their explicatory prose, the one down-side to that level of scene-setting was that the element of surprise had to be sacrificed in order to guide the reader through otherwise difficult and dense material. No such sacrifices have been required here, and as a result the thrilling multiplicity of the range of subject on show, coupled with the boldness and confidence derived from following such a wide-ranging project as the previous collection, means that we are transported through time and space, myth and register, dance and fight, throughout. The opening, title, poem is a triumph of this sort of navigation, mixing the language of craftsmanship with that of Biblical love, shifting from the tender sensuality of the maker – ‘The first day he cut rosewood for the back,/bent sycamore into ribs to make a belly’ to the expressive declaration ‘He shall lie all night between my breasts.’ What makes this poem feel like more than a mere exercise in virtuosity, or a tethering together of past and present, is the way Padel manages to make this conflation feel inevitable, in the bones, with the old and new rituals and the old and new acts of violence chained together by a heightened version of the sort of interpersonal care and close observation on show in The Mara Crossing’s domestic scenes. That the wider impulse behind all this cutting, paring and sanding was that ‘his banner over me was love’ takes on more than a merely touching, romantic satisfaction when re-read in the light of the rest of the poems here.

If hope is the still point in the turning mechanism of this collection, conflict and violence are absolutely central too, and it is this clash between the bloody and the resolute which provides the momentum and charge of the best poems here. Christ’s final words are brought together in a stunning suite of focused snapshots, where it isn’t only the spring in the rhythm that stuns, but the intensity of focus on minutiae, the sheer corporeality of the hanging man, with his ‘bubble-wrap of viscid spittle’ and ‘wrecked lungs’ fighting his desire to cry out for help, or even admit to his human thirst. The third poem of the sequence, focusing on his mother’s love and the loss of his boyhood, is one of the book’s high points and a masterpiece of reined-in melancholy.

Time, also, is a presence, often with an elegiac note which brings with it not morbidity or fear but rather resolution and a desire to persist and endure. The meditative quality of the phrase ‘Landscape/is your life seen in distance, when you know//for just an interval of sunlight/how to join time travelled with time still to go’ is refracted in the elegy to J.G Farrell ‘Mill Wheel at Bantry’ with its closing lines ‘There’s been so much/ I haven’t attended to. So much I didn’t see’ and colours the poems at their bloodiest or most seemingly hopeless. Picking up on the previous focus on migration, home here is still in flight, and motion, in never staying still, and this desire to attend to experience and act in a meaningful fashion is perhaps most eloquently summed up in ‘The Chain’s declaration that ‘I’m trying to transform sin into grace.’

That idea is more than a spoken intention, and in a sense is the overarching architecture of this book, and of the poems’ making. It is a collection obsessed with salvage and rescue, with empathy and the transformation of suffering into something like grace, and so even at its darkest moments, where Brueghel paints The Triumph of Death to give us ‘the world as it is’ there is hope to be found, albeit possibly only in retrospect, from his ‘painstaking draughtsmanship’. At times in this often devastatingly undeceived book, light and reasons for optimism may be difficult to see, but they are unfailingly present – even on the Western Front, where ‘they may have wondered why a thing with wings/would stay in such a place.’ As alluded to elsewhere, we know that in Dickinson’s phrase hope is just such a winged thing, and despite all the odds it is clear that it endures, just as even the act of breakage that is Kintsugi is a strange version of triumph, which adds value and allows for ‘the joy/of finding and then bringing back/to the world (this is porcelain/we’re talking of here, not a life)/what was, or what could have been, lost.’

The book’s closing poem, ‘Facing East’, feels like a poem wrestled not only from experience in a worldly sense, but also in terms of the artistic strides gained over the course of the previous collection’s addition of a new set of poetic tools by virtue of the prosimetrum form. There is no simple ‘to be’ to fall back on, we are a migrant, moving people but as this final poem attests in a line which echoes Larkin’s earlier epiphany: ‘What will survive are meanings we have found/in what the world has made’. In a poem which alone takes in Greek myth, modern warfare and classical music, the steely summation feels hard-won and has the air of something like faith and permanence in a defiantly transitory world – ‘Making is our defence against the dark.’ Padel’s poetry, which can take us from hotel rooms watching CNN to the site of the crucifixion, is a testament to the power of making as a means of bearing witness, and at their height both books have the unquestionable sense that they have been made because they must.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: