‘Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth’: Diary of a Reading

Thought I’d share an old piece I wrote on Ruth Padel’s Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. I enjoyed reading the book, and enjoyed even more the opportunity to write about it. This piece dates to November 2014.

Diary of a reading

Day 1 – To begin this Oud malarkey I return to The Soho Leopard, to the Voodoo Shop. Travel has always been Padel’s story, and the language of travel has always been her poetry. That sensual palpability: ‘the crackle-glaze tangle’ of tiger, [1] ‘That bare guitar, pitchforking the idea/ Of harmonizing having nothing/ Into the kitchen’.[2]  A conjuring mimesis, consistently Padel. ‘Accomplished’, ‘mature’, etc. Her ideas scratched into clay, plucked strings, scratchy hay bales swung around the room. Travel and its legacy as an audiovisual itch to scratch and scratch again over the pages of one’s scrapbook. Catch something piquing in South America and translate it to your ‘IBM-compatible Macintosh/ On the eighteenth floor/ Of centrally-heated, open-plan Canary Wharf’.[3] I want to see Cuba before it falls to capitalism. Padel says go (rucksack, khakis and shirt) and bring back a laúd as a souvenir. This time it’s the Middle East in all its great Abrahamic how’s-your-father.

I watch Robin Coste Lewis and Claudia Rankine’s recent Aloud reading.[4] Plato has been softened a little over the years: poets are banished from the Republic, but some are allowed in. Shift the context, from America to the UK (this is not shifting the context at all). Padel is an in-poet (London: Chatto & Windus). Perhaps I would feel better about this whole Oud business if there was a placating ‘50p of your purchase will go to an NGO working with Syrian refugees’. Never mind that I got the book for free. Yes, I would. Ashbery’s ‘Unctuous Platitudes’ remains the most astute title I can remember, perhaps because we – I – want them so badly.[5] I can write no criticism without complicity. There is no poetry, there is only politics.

Day 2 – I feel sick as I read ‘the flay’,[6] the ‘ratchet[ing] up the pain’,[7] the ‘ten inch pin’ through the arches of his feet.[8] I’ve never crucified anybody, I meditate and buy only free range eggs. There is no God, there is only politics.

Day 5 – I go to a seminar with Cambridge University’s Simon Jarvis, on ‘Superversive Poetics: Robert Browning and the Mereology of Poems’.[9] I’m struck by the idea that a single line can be served by the whole of the poem, be a zenith. Jarvis’ example is ‘Fuse, lose the varicolor in achromatic white!’ from Browning’s Fifine at the Fair. What would be the single essential line of Oud? Perhaps I can narrow it down to three:

the Y of a pomegranate tree, lobes

of young fern, flesh spears of an iris leaf

and the soft blue stem of a Persian rose.[10] [10-2]

lobes/rose one of those half-rhymes shimmering through the book (conflict brings them – Padel’s a ‘sexy, strong, rhythmic, passionate’ Wilfred Owen, ‘with a dash of punk Sappho thrown in’),[11] the flesh spears shadowing those nauseous ‘Seven Words and an Earthquake’, its concentric echoes: young fern/blue stem/Persian, spears/iris/rose, flesh/leaf/soft. Harmonious warped Levant, Owen in the weft. Too romantic. More likely:

about a holy city. They have enriched plutonium.[12]


the world we live in. He painted Slaughter[13]

Isolated, they sound glib. That Old Testament romance is the counterbalance. It has a lot to answer for.

Day 6 –

Speak of hope, that anchor bird

born on the site of loss, with a thousand

resistant strategies frosting her wings

like mica charms or ancient pilgrim songs

embossed in the Book of Psalms.[14] [5-9]


First impression: …

Second impression: bird/thousand, loss/frost/embossed, wings/songs, charms/Psalms. I like ‘anchor bird’. Grounded aspiration. Concrete future.

Third impression: ‘resistant strategies’ is a metrical roadblock here. Probably appropriate.

Fourth impression: May have to make  a case for ‘mica’ to be included with ‘shards’, ‘gossamer’ and ‘flux’.[15]

Day 7 – This title. An Oud in Nazareth, or its Making, is the essential image. The Learning To, with its diluting diffusing now-or-ever /ing/, is fluff bracketing the what-needs-to-be-said. Over the top, piling it on gratuitously. And somehow it unbalances the title: LEARNing to MAKE an OUD in NAZareth. It puts the areth out of kilter, disjoins the very heart of the title’s story, the crossing point of a real place and the symbolic weight that all this messy politick is all about.

Necessary, though. The Learning is the essential process. Now I’m near the end of the collection, the Oud and the Nazareth seem by-the-by. It’s the Learning To Make that the collection is tracing, and the diluting diffusing now-or-never /ing/ is the essential, though diffuse, image. It is the homeopathic presence of the Capoeira Boy, with all his ‘learning’ and ‘lumbering’ and ‘pouring’ of himself into ‘the dance-fight-dance’. Palestine from Brazil from Africa (via white people, the usual suspect): the Middle East the epicentre of everyone; Eden and trauma, Zion and trauma, ring-a ring-a Persian roses. It is Learning and never learning. Israel’s 2009 Eurovision entry.[16] The /ing/ might be the collection’s superversive zenith. For Padel the /ing/ is an observing or describing. Is this recognition of the poet’s position, or myopic backseat driving? Would a Palestinian poet have been able to write and publish and have gushing praise quoted on the back of this book?

Day 8 – I’ve reached the end of the collection, ‘Facing East’.[17] This is its anthem, the punctum. The collection serves the poem as much as the poem serves the collection. How apt that it brings me back to my own corner of the world. And Padel is certainly right about

Over here, in kitchens,

at the Tuesday evening pub quiz, on the bus or tube,

how quickly arguments flare up


even in England; even if we’ve never been

to what we call the middle of the east.[18] [30-4]

But I can’t quite buy the universal humanity argument; I have too much internalized privilege theory in the way; there are too many intersecting matrixes of oppression at work in the Middle East for it to be this simple. Israel’s 2009 Eurovision entry. I can’t believe this book remains consistently Padel. Consistently Padel needs to break something to write this, Sexy Strong Punk Wilf with his lobes and his roses is all wrong.

I look up Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture at Aldeburgh. Yes this is very lovely, rusting. Pilgrims. Coquilles St-Jacques empty orange-pink at Lanildut. Starfishes washed up like cartoon banana peels at Three Cliffs. No, east. Winterton-on-Sea protruding from the beach, barnacles on the back of a grandfather crab. Shacks weathered black, black thatch, pink featherweed clear plastic petticoats. Scallop like a scoubidous sail, like a big Roscoff artichoke, gorged corrugated coalscuttle. I am meant to be looking east and I keep looking west. I am looking at the finger, not at where it’s pointing.

I’m fully aware that this is my own myopia, but is it also the book’s? It is subtly faceted in its profession of something universally human. Whether you look at the finger or its object I suppose depends on a) whether you believe in that universal humanness, and b) whether you think a poetry of sensuous description is a vehicle capable and appropriate for carrying and dispersing it. Today in my drizzly corner of the world night began at 4 o’clock and it has been raining all day, so I’m sceptical. If it were a sunny day and I was at Aldeburgh, I might feel differently. Yes, I would. The real question is what Capoeira Boy, Jesus and Moshe Scheiner think. Dr Rowan Williams has provided a quote about how ‘sensitiv[e] to different cultural environments’ the book is for the back cover, so we’ve got white Anglican Jesus covered.[19] But what about the others? Does it matter? There is no politics there is only poetry?


[1] Ruth Padel, ‘Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool’ in The Soho Leopard (London: Chatoo & Windus, 2004): 1; line 11.

[2] Ruth Padel, ‘Joinery’ in Voodoo Shop (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002): 37; lines 5-7.

[3] Ruth Padel, ‘Voodoo Shop’ in Voodoo Shop (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002): 20-2; lines 30-2.

[4] Aloud LA, ‘Robin Coste Lewis and Claudia Rankine: The Poet as Citizen’, 23 October 2014, available at http://vimeo.com/110964325.

[5] John Ashbery, ‘Unctuous Platitudes’ in Complete Poems 1956 – 1987, ed. Mark Ford (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010: 498-9.

[6] Ruth Padel, ‘Seven Words and an Earthquake: 1 Forgiveness’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 19-21; line 22.

[7] Ibid., line 41.

[8] Ruth Padel, ‘Seven Words and an Earthquake: 2 Comfort’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 22-3; line 4.

[9] Simon Jarvis, ‘Superversive Poetics: Robert Browning and the Mereology of Poems’, given at UEA 13 November 2014.

[10] Ruth Padel, ‘After the Fire’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 12.

[11] Ruth Padel, The Soho Leopard (London: Chatto & Windus: 2004). Blurbial recommendations on the back cover by Jeanette Winterson for The Times, and the TLS.

[12] Ruth Padel, ‘As I Flick the Remote in the Gulf I Think of an Ancient Greek Playwright’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 34-5; line 33.

[13] Ruth Padel, ‘Pieter the Funny One’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 40-2; line 20.

[14] Ruth Padel, ‘To Speak of Distance’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014): 47.

[15] Roberta James, ‘Have Some Words Passed Their Sell-by Date for Poetry?’ in Magma Poetry, 13 December 2010, available at http://magmapoetry.com/old-words/

[16] Noa and Mira Awad, ‘There Must Be Another Way’, 30 March 2009, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RN8B1xvCxI0

[17] Ruth Padel, ‘Facing East’ in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (London: Chatoo & Windus, 2014): 50-3.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ruth Padel, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth.


Feature image: https://sites.dundee.ac.uk/dura/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2015/01/oud-825×510.jpg


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