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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Andrew Neilson reviews

Voodoo Shop by Ruth Padel

Chatto & Windus, £8.99.

This piece is 800 words or about two printed pages long.

I just don’t get Ruth Padel, as a voice in one of her poems might say, though I’d like to. Here is an assured handling of loose forms and an extravagant but precise vocabulary: ‘leucistic leopards,’ ‘Africa’s scorpion cliffs / Of lemon cloisonne, rose quartz, sand schist.’ Here is an eclectic range of reference worthy of the writer of I’m a Man, a study on rock music and Greek myth which rivals the work of Greil Marcus in its crazily erudite reverence for snake-hipped singers and electric guitars. Here is direct emotional expression and vivid scene-setting, long poems developed as essays and themes developed throughout an entire collection. But I just don’t get Ruth Padel, though I’d like to.

One of Padel’s sustaining characteristics — those unique qualities that not only mark every poet as different from each other but which also seem to generate much of their writing (over and above simple issues of subject matter) — is her contemporaneity. This is poetry as glossy lifestyle magazine, featuring references to Nike trainers, PowerBooks, and a couple imagining themselves as ‘two bottles of Strozzapieto Di Padrone Olive Oil.’ Characters wear ‘crushed velvet Issey Miyake’ and belong to ‘the Charmer’s wine-bar world of Prada slingbacks’ or say things like ‘‘I loved his Arabic calligraphy / Of messages on my mobile / Flicked from a Soho carpark in the dark. . .’’ Place names and exotic settings abound from Brazil to Bondi Beach, with many of the poems following the arc of a globetrotting relationship. For all the exotica, however, we are always aware that this is the world seen through the eyes of a middle-class Englishwoman, someone who flaunts her cultural tourism because of its perfect post-modernity and the extensive mileage to be had in terms of the verse itself. Occasionally all this poetic travelling lets Padel down as her voice veers off-course — the unconvincing mimicking of a surf dude, for instance, in ‘Surf Rage at Bondi Beach.’ ‘Hot Ash’ meanwhile takes her voice to a rare dead calm:

I’m glad you’ve come through.
I hadn’t seen you since your father died —

And mine. The bar was lined
With friends. I’d split up after four years

With my lover — or maybe not —
Yes definitely. Burnt, poor bugger,

By fall-out from whatever mourning is. . .

Unfortunately, this brave stab at unadorned address founders on Padel’s penchant for on-the-page vernacular phrasing (i.e., the sort you never seem to hear), which perilously loosens the lyric tension of these lines.

There are two main problems with Voodoo Shop. Firstly, Padel’s intelligence radiates on every page, but her poems are not always allowed sufficient space to breathe. She falls into wordy explication and overly signalled conceits. Take, for example, ‘Shaping Up,’ which features the singer/songwriter Tori Amos as its central character. This poem turns on the kind of ambiguity that Paul Muldoon would present effortlessly but which Padel clouds in the prosy set-up necessary to get Amos convincingly in front of her readers. Secondly, filling poems with exotic settings and set-ups is not enough to make them interesting in themselves. It is incumbent upon the poet to live up to the demands of her subject matter. Too often the poems of Voodoo Shop rely on bejewelled accoutrements alone to carry themselves along. Even when returning to the comforts of ‘Home Cooking,’ Padel manages to introduce ‘a fuck / the length of our kitchen table,’ but all that fruity and peculiarly English naughtiness does not a poem make.

Which is not to say that there are no fine poems here. The collection’s opening poem, ‘Letter to Onegin,’ is a colorful reimagination of Pushkin, while ‘Rattlesnakes and Rubies’ is a rich and touching love narrative. ‘Joinery’ is a love poem which miraculously brings together such diverse elements as Bob Marley, Orpheus, and Safeway’s Moroccan spuds, as well as ‘the Nazi general who listed in his memoir all / The musical instruments his men smashed’:

. . .In the general’s cell, the chords
From recarved, glued, revarnished shells
Of lutes and viols, tabrets, tambourines,
Steal back in dreams to hum his soul to hell.

‘Joinery’ is Padel at her flamboyant best. She is a writer prepared to take risks, and in the often moribund world of British poetry her work is refreshing in its range. It may be flawed, but Voodoo Shop is still several times better than most collections you will read this year. Nonetheless, good poetry can’t be willed into being, and however ingenious Padel’s attempts are to enliven her verse, I can’t help but feel that Voodoo Shop often strains too hard to be the real juju — more’s the pity.

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