for Patsy Rodenburg and Antonia Franceschi
I was never your devoted lover. It was gossip,
That. All wrong. I am the Amur leopard no
One knows about, the thirty-fifth, each eye
An emerald. I’m passing by Quo
Vadis, St Anne’s Court and Sunset Strip
On a summer evening trembling – water-muscle
Breaking on the knife-
Edge of a dam – with promises of headlong
Encounters that might change a life.
I never ended anything between us, so
You wouldn’t lose your house and kids,
Endanger school fees and the tax rebate,
Your salary, your mother’s Irish bonds.
That wasn’t me. It was a question of identity,
Mistaken. Poachers will get me anyway by and by,
So the mafia can repackage me
As os pantherii, yellow pills in ivory hexagons
Brush-painted with a Cinnamon Tree
Hieroglyph, the remedy
for impotence in Hong Kong.
But I’m still leopard now: frostfur, quicksilver, planting pug-
Marks all the way down Dean Street, past Cafe Lazeez,
Trying not to hear through the open door
Of the Crown and Two Chairmen
That ballad you used to sing, ‘You Needed Me’.
I’m watching saffron awnings spill white zeds of light
On Il Siciliano’s pavement tablecloth.
But catching my own reflection, rippling over
A Choi Sun figurine (the god of wealth, riding
A tiger, holding a block of gold), in the window of
The Wen Tai Sun News Agency, gives me – or
Let’s take this out of self and call my leopard ‘her’ –
A shock. She pauses, on the dimpled granite kerb
Of Chapone Place. She’s all herself, and free,
But this territory’s patrolled
By her lost mate. She’s wearing her endangered heart
On every nerve-end, just in case
His silvery silhouette and head-on-one-side smile
Pad up at the Webshack Internet Cafe.
Dean Street? This is Dream Street. There’s nothing here,
No one to marvel at the sole nivalis in the wild
Zoologists still haven’t counted.
She’d send statistics reeling if they spied
Her rosette jigsaw of
Black coral, broken daffodil.
About this poem
Ruth Padel came to the Scottish Poetry Library in November 2007, and talked about a poem 'The Dog' by C. K. Williams and a poem of her own. She commented on the two poems:
All too often, judging a poetry competition, you read a poem which has lovely lines, lovely apercus, nice cadences and all that, but the poet throws it away in the last two lines. It doesn't know where it's going, and "going" is what poems are about. It is the movement through that you remember, and which reveals the structure of thought. A poem is many different journeys – of sound, sense and image – braiding into one and all brought together at the end.
So movement was what I wanted to concentrate on and I chose long poems because you can feel the movement through them very clearly. Besides, people often feel put off by long poems so I thought someone walking beside might help.
Ruth Padel writes about her poem 'The Soho Leopard':
It's hard to write about your own poem, so I'll try doing it as if it were someone else's. There are more slippery structures and procedures here. CK Williams' poem is a drive towards honesty, scrutinizing and refining the feelings that drive the poem but this is a journey of masks and disguise, using fairytale, the faraway, and theatre, as a way of apparently revealing self. You might call it a journey of revelation through disguise. At one level, the movement is from denial (I was never your lover… That wasn't me) to acceptance (I must have been your lover after all), involving a moral dilemma (she'll have to stop believing he was good), which is faced up to at the end - when the lover, or Beast, is revealed as treacherous, and blank / about it.
This poem is a retrospective adventure into a past relationship. Overtly, this is a woman re-assessing an ex-lover, and preparing to move on from him. The moral journey is paralleled by the physical journey described in the poem, a walk down Dean Street (5th and 8th stanzas) in London's Soho on the edge of Chinatown, past alleys, pub and restaurants (café Lazeez, Il Siciliano) where people from different far-off places (like the god of wealth in a Chinese newsagent) gather; and ending in the Soho Theatre.
The walk swings outward to gateways to another world (like Mexico in the second section, and the tale of Beauty and the Beast enacted in a theatre), but also inward (she's got to send her mind elsewhere; that night she dreams). The moral journey is worked out by leaving an outer life of school fees and the tax rebate for an inner life of imagining and image. This is where she reaches the admission (you were my care… no other way of telling this story). En route, not only the landscape but the persona changes. The I starts off by denying who she has been (I was never) and claiming she is a species of leopard endangered by poaching for Asian medicine. There are only 35 known Amur leopards left wild (in Russia's Far East, close to China). Like tigers, they are killed for their bone - to which Chinese medicine attributes various medicinal and restorative properties.
It is in this vulnerable persona that she starts off, planting leopardy pugmarks down Dean Street. Then she denies something else: being inside the leopard persona in a postmodern moment (let's take this out of self) which suggests another 'me' behind the leopard (let's… call my leopard ‘her'). Once the I is safely in the third person, the heroine can imagine seeing the ex again - in her own reflection (since she's a leopard presumably the lost mate is, too), in the window of a Chinese newsagent. And she can also admit this is not Dean Street so much as Dream Street.
Once she is safely in the third person, a whole lot of dreaming and imagining can begin. She enters a new world, Inca sites and the site of creation, to get away from what she really, really doesn't want to face and create something new out of facing it. Once she has stated the problem (stop believing he was good) she can move on to the next stage of the journey: Beauty and the Beast as seen from the perspective of lighting directions for a play.
This passage took off from notes I made, long before I wrote the poem, when I took my daughter to Tim Supple's Young Vic production.
Beast's palace is another world, where actions and thoughts are also melody. She feels she has to trust the Beast she can't see mustn't doubt… ghost-faith), even though she expects him to destroy her (aware you'll eat me).
This passage looks back, perhaps, to the beginning of the relationship. All the signs of his world suggest she shouldn't trust him. He sounds like the villain in Star Wars. When he appears, in spite of seeing the actor's mouth behind the mask, we hear he is fond of money, and his tears are diamond paste. His world is supposedly made to give her delight. But she's at sea, in it, about who she's supposed to be. Her previous journey, of taking on other personas, has brought her up against a master of mask. Stepping into his world means becoming the prisoner of his goldplate masquerade. One aspect of this masquerade is that his avowed purpose is to give her joy. His rooms are made to please her. The extra 'me' of the narrative voice leaves it open whether he is genuine about this or not (he may even think he means it).
When she dreams she's dancing with a prince she is making contact with the self he would like to have, which he feels lives imprisoned behind the mask. Beast and Beauty are linked by their propensity to conceal a self in a disguise. In the Chamber of Longed For Harmonies (suggesting the joining of voices) she finds the locket: her dream corresponds exactly to that prince which poor beast is desperate to become, but which he can only become if she believes in him as prince.
From his perspective, he is the prisoner, not her: imprisoned in his own image. But the narrative presents this ironically (you see) casting doubt on the validity of the enchanted-palace way he looks at things. And this narrative voice comes more to the fore to address Beauty directly (girl) and comment ironically on the daunting task which loving this beast represents. She may indeed be consumed by relationship with him. She might have to give up all she is to save him from himself. But if she did do that, what would she be saving? What's real in him? If she did reach behind all the masks, he might be a man she'd turn out not to like.
But Beauty is now a role in a drama. The stage directions and story line have decided her character and how she relates to him. The stage directions stand in, perhaps, for the moral responsibility she bears, herself - for not acting, way back, on her instinct that he might not be trustable, that he was, in fact, a beast.
She now defines herself only in relation to him (this is who I am, I'm his). She provides him with a place to hide (earth); protects the prince within; calms his panic at the punitive mother figure, the mother-witch who made him a Beast in the first place. (Shades of Freudian or Jungian theory lurk in the undergrowth here, I'd say.) But she can't take it and gets out (Beauty escaped).
The poem has changed the story; and now the heroine mutates back through the previous identities, from Beauty to the Amur leopard: a process which re-enacts and draws to a conclusion the moral journey of the poem. She emerges, honestly, as the woman who must have been your lover. It is no longer her heart which is endangered, though, but the man. He was an endangered species; and is now extinct.
The final scene (Beauty slinks back to the Beast's palace, as in the last scene of the Disney film, slinks nudging the fairytale into the image of a leopard) finds the lover sinking to the ground. Instead of those playful rooms of clowns and mirrors, he is in a Walk of Withered Roses, and turns out to be treacherous and blank, as well as endangered and vulnerable. There are no more songs and the narrative voice, which sees no other way to tell this story, melts its I into the masking personas of both Beauty and leopard (every alias I can think of) as the Beast falls back dead: and die, the last word, rhymes back to the I of the first. The poem began with denial: its journey is towards the admission that there was no other way to end the relationship.
Ruth Padel © 2007