Ruth Padel

Mary's Elephant, Elizabeth's Spinet

Ruth Padel

Mary's Elephant, Elizabeth's Spinet

Ruth Padel

Poem introduction

This poem came out of a commission I had from the VA museum to write about an object in its British galleries. And I asked for two objects because, extraordinarily, a tapestry which Mary Queen of Scots made over seventeen years in captivity, until she was executed by Elizabeth I, her cousin, has ended up in those galleries very very close to a spinet which that cousin, Elizabeth, had commissioned for her in Venice and played on. And I imagine in this poem that if you and I actually held hands, one of us touched the tapestry and one of us touched the spinet, we would actually be joining these two women who obviously in many ways had a great deal in common, they both turned to art when they were in pain. One thing you need to know is that the last wolf in Britain was shot in Scotland in the 18th Century. What you also need to know is that Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother, had a logo of a falcon holding on to a sceptre. The tapestry is a very big tapestry, and I have focused on one little bit of it at the bottom, a little elephant that Mary copied from an old book.

Mary's Elephant, Elizabeth's Spinet

Mary's Elephant, Elizabeth's Spinet

Some night in the 1580s, she snaps the last knot off with her teeth
By candle-light. One blob under the tail and she has him, in tent
Stitch: startled king from Icones Animalium, a beast she's never seen.
Ears, silver-pink abalone. Feet lost in a webbed pool of bubbles: blue
Muttonfat peas reflecting sky he'll never see. She rests him on her lap
Writing letters in her head - unsendable as words for resin
In Armenian akrolect. Her cousin knows everything she has to say
Already. Outside, the black unbroken forest rides to London.
Wolves kill a roe for cubs whose last descendent
Will be shot in Mary's realm, two hundred years down the line.
But she, in these walls, is marigold: a heliotrope,
Turning petals to a sun she'll never play with on her skin,
Ransacking old books in Spanish for emblems of hope.

Down south, the keyboard's come from Florian, in Venice.
Cousin E tries some Byrdian version of Only the Lonely, checks
The gilt inlay, Islamic painted whorls, that logo of falcon and sceptre.
(Her mum's. She paid extra for that.) The blazing bronze fret
Is an eavesdropping sun. She's awaiting her spies. She has become
Her own grotesque: ferocious, exquisite. She can never give in.
She sends men to the tropics, men to death. When her blood says Dance,
She will gavotte the night away with the Earl of Leicester.
No one sees tears at what she looks like now, or who on earth else
May show up in her bed. When melancholy strikes, they see
Her turn to a Pavane; see shadow-bones - capitate, triquetral, lunate -
Stripe and flinch in the back of her hand. One frizzed hair,
White and red, drifts down over black middle C.

And if you and I held hands across this room; touched DNA
Of their touch, sloughed off on this tusker embroidered in velvet
And lint, this Venice lacquer, cypress, ebony,
We would join fingerprints that never met.

from The Soho Leopard (Chatto, 2004), copyright © Ruth Padel 2004, used by permission of the author and the publisher


Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel Reading from her Poems

1Writing to Onegin



4Mary's Elephant, Elizabeth's Spinet

5Icicles Round A Tree in Dumfriesshire

6The Pazyrak Nomad

7Shaping Up

8Pharaoh's Cup

9Indian Princess Picks Lover Out From Gods

10Pilot Light

11The Soho Leopard

12The Stone That Flows

13The Appointment

14The Red-Gold Border