Ruth Padel


Land of the Setting Sun

So here we are in summer
back     after probate
to look through her things

share them out
clear the house
share with each other

the strange snagging stillness
which feels as if it contains
a swarm of data waiting for meaning

her house without her
the risen moon
of her absence

which we’ve all been whirlpooling through
these last six months down our own private rapids
fed by the underground waters of nothing hereafter

but look      there’s a presence
her stick in the corner
her handwriting everywhere

we can laugh     open her wine      remember
and catch sunlight striking leaves
of the beech trees into green flame

from her old bedroom window
where     as she dressed

piecing together for another day
all her perverse
strength     and reckless fragility

where she used to watch the red sun rise

and see deer
pretty but     bugger them     demolishing
new buds on her roses

before we made her move

to the ground floor
banned her
from carting her cracked pelvis upstairs alone.

None of the goldfinches     robins
and coal tits that so delighted her
are around

jasmine has overgrown the bird-feeder pole
and even the roses
no deer could get at them now

each flower must have bloomed
over that hidden trellis
in its own scented dark

but at the farthest point of her daily walk
through the retirement village
in an avenue of slanting shadows

the pyramid orchids she treasured are ablaze
purple pop-ups on the verge
through ancient blonde hair of meadow grass.

One of the many books we shall now have to take to Oxfam
says that in Iranian cosmology
God holds up the sky to stop it falling

and the mountains
hold the earth down
like tent pegs over a groundsheet

including Mount Qaf
sacred mountain the imaginary
farthest point of earth

only spot in this world where the roc might land
which artists always paint in the holy colour of Islam
the glow-green of traffic lights or emerald

but those same mountains
landslip earthquake volcano
may shake us dementedly loose at any time.

She was so sure
there was nothing beyond this earth.
No sign-bearer or tireless messenger

running through interstellar fields
could have tempted her to say
When I die     I’ll see the lining of the world

the other side     beyond the sunrise
beyond coal tits     beech trees     robins
the daily crossword     and a thousand

invisible moral obligations of duty and care
like folding down the end of the sellotape
so it never sticks to the roll for someone else.

She would never buy unearthly.
No gods     omens or signs.
But in the land of the setting sun

we are all hungry for fruits of the real
and what she believed in
were entangled photons

the smallest light particles
quantum linked     however far away
of family       children       and the mysterious earth.

These were her emerald arrow
in every underpass       the green glow
lighting her shadows     saying     This Way.



In 2014 I was very fortunate to visit the Borderlands Foundation at Krasnogruda, outside the town of Sejny by the Lithuanian border, with my dear friend Eva Hofmann, and to see the manor house where Miłosz spent his summer holidays and where his mother’s family came from. So much of his inspiration came from nature, and I was particularly moved by this beautiful landscape of hills, lakes and forests and bright-blowing clouds. In an essay on T. S. Eliot, Miłosz argues that questions of formal freedom are bound up with art’s role as communication: how you say something is inseparable from what you say and who you say it to. He liked poems that focused on ‘real things’: description which ‘demands observation, so intense that the veil of everyday falls away and something we paid no attention to is revealed as miraculous’. He called the poems in his anthology, The Book of Luminous Things, ‘loyal towards reality’. His poem ‘Meaning’ calls on the religious insight that real presence must lie somewhere else. Miłosz wrote it in 1991, two years after he had seen Krasnogruda again after long exile, and the form is the ancient Greek amoebaic convention of question and answer. The first voice claims that when he dies, he will see the world’s ‘true meaning’ beyond the real, but there is a wry laugh behind this idea and when I responded to this poem, six months after my mother (who enjoyed a laugh and never believed in anything beyond nature) died, I suspect I was remembering something Miłosz said was integral to his writing, which he called ‘romantic irony’.