Ruth Padel




They say the ear bone, shaped like the bowl
of a tiny spoon, lasts longest when we die.
The soul might be like this: hard, necessary,
almost nothing. My parents
got together at a music camp
in farmland of chalk hills. A clarinettist
dropped out of the orchestra and my dad
queued for the village pay phone,
called a girl he’d just met, hired a tandem bike
and fetched her from the station.

I like to picture her on the edge of knowing,
legs whizzing round, her clarinet case
tied behind. He’d have done that for her,
he always took great pains with making safe.
Between hedgerows of early summer
she’s cycling into a lifetime with him.
Look, there we are waiting for her
five future string-players
hiding among the vetch and willowherb.

She played the piano too. At first
she accompanied him in duets. I can see them
working on Beethoven’s cello sonata Opus 69.
She’s listening to him, he’s listening to her.
Questions, answers, and the all-you-can’t-say
stream to and fro. Angry and agonised, tender
as the history of marriage. Then we arrived
and she didn’t have time to play. It gave me a notion
women do their music-making away from home.

Later she joined an orchestra. I remember her
practising trills from the Pastoral Symphony
where a clarinet alone
has to drop perfect sound into perfect silence,
suspend the world, and descend
to the waiting ear. The almost-nothing bone,
that little house of hearing
which brought the two of them together
and which Beethoven lost. So hard to discover
and make perfect, even half-perfect, in yourself.



Take this Cup from Me


We all need a place to store the darkness.
Sitting in the garden of this bakery-
turned-museum, his six-month Gethsemane,
the crisis-point, I gaze up at his window.
Soft-lantern trees in golden shadow

and a wall of words he copied out from Kant.
The starry heavens above, the moral law within.
I’m still reeling from the piano
with a megaphone on the lid
like a prompter’s box, to amplify the sound,

a staff he held against a piano with his teeth
trying to hear through his cranial bone
and head-phones with buttons you can press
to monitor how much fainter he’d have heard
as the years went by. Plus the recipe for bread soup

he looked forward to on Thursdays, with ten eggs
he stirred in, and threw any that weren’t fresh
at the house-keeper. These cock-eyed
domestic details of a man who plunged head-first
into work whatever was on his mind,

made it more precise again and again,
writing new parts for trombones from his bed
the very morning of performance,
flash me back to a man who carved wood and stone
and showed me how to live a creating life.

I was young. He was twenty years older.
I stayed with him for ten. After the first night
I went to my desk, wondering what happened.
He came round in the evening, said
what a beautiful day’s work he’d done

because of me. I learned that creating comes
from need. Also surprise.
That you put yourself in the way of grace
and let the material lead. But there’s also risk.
You must have chaos in you

to give birth to a dancing star.
He was the ring of fire I had to break out from.
I cleared the bedroom, slipped away.
But here I am in Beethoven’s garden
still thinking about him today.


Ruth Padel has published twelve poetry collections. Her new one, Beethoven Variations, contains poems on the composer’s life and music which draw on her childhood playing viola, and more recently five years’ work with the Endellion String Quartet. The poems are followed by a prose Coda, a mini-bio which acts as echo chamber to the poems. She is Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; the first money she earned was £5 playing viola in Westminster Abbey.

Continue to to Laura Muetzelfeldt on Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Built Moment >>

See Ruth Padel’s Letter to a Young Poet

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