Ruth Padel Brings a Jewel to the Salon

Ruth Padel: “Emerald really is like a jewel brought up from the deep.”

by Catherine Temma

On September 26th, we hosted Ruth Padel for our first event in a new location. I have taken up hosting, along with Lucasta Miller, and I was understandably nervous, but with committee members Karen Scourby D’Arc and Julia Weiner on hand to help, everything went smoothly.

Two days before I had seen our previous and much missed host, Sarah Glazer, for tea. She was about to start teaching a new course at NYU and was sorry she had to leave before the reading, but I was happy to report we had a full house response to our event. On the night itself, the Piccadilly strike brought the numbers down, but we still had a wonderful crowd of novelists, poets, historians, journalists and readers who mingled in the kitchen over the mezze and then went upstairs to hear Ruth read.

Emerald really is like a jewel brought up from the deep. Written in the wake of the death of her 97 year old mother, it is a series of poems about mourning, a tender portrait of a remarkable mother (the great-granddaughter of Darwin), a meditation on the tensions between science and faith, and an assertion of the power of story-telling and the way words transform the base material of daily life into something wonderful and lasting.

Ruth’s reading was a reminder of the best of what poetry can be – how it can contain layers of meaning in a compact form through the conversations words, images, lines and even poems have within a compressed space, and how good poets can access multiple layers of memory and imagination in their readers as well. This really struck me as I listened to Ruth read aloud poems I had enjoyed and admired on the page; in her intonations and breath, her pauses and tone, they took on greater depth and dimensionality.

It was hard to stop in time for a discussion, but I had questions I wanted to ask about how Ruth produced a book of such intensity and depth in the wake of one of life’s most profound griefs. She told us that she had been working on a book about emeralds; her mother’s illness and death erupted into the middle of this material and drove a white line through it. What emerged was a much more compact and multi-layered book. She talked about the editing process like a form of chiselling, and said she was very lucky to have an editor who encouraged her to chip away the much larger work to find these compact conversations instead.

It seemed that many in the audience had views about emeralds – from the esoteric to the everyday; we heard there was an English superstition against giving emeralds, and the role that emeralds played in alchemy. Julia Weiner told us about a talk she gave at the V&A on a collection of Mughal emeralds.

We ended the evening with a look forward – to future salons in West London, in North London at the biographer Lucasta Miller’s house, and a possible Field Trip to the Women’s Library in the new year.

Ruth Padel’s book, Emerald, is available at bookshops and through all major online retailers.