Ruth Padel’s latest collection of poems The Mara Crossing is thoughtful and fascinating. It also contains an explanation – provided by Padel herself in the accompanying prose – of how she came to write these poems, and of the amazing journey the poet has taken, both physically and in her imagination.
The collection focuses on migration – a concept so ancient and yet so current in our lives. Each chapter consists of a selection of poems and an essay written in crisp, beautiful prose that circles around the main theme and creates an intricate pattern of repeated and revisited concepts, turns of phrase and imagery. Padel’s vast knowledge in history and science is impressive, although not surprising – she is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin.
Migration is more than a quest for a better life. Both animals and humans have spread from a few cells to a fully populated planet over the millennia but that physical migration has always been accompanied, and often preceded, by the migration of the soul.
We like to feel that we belong somewhere. But we are also constantly pulled towards the unknown, the ‘far far away’, the adventure. ‘Behind a lot of this is a bird’s response to earth’s magnetic field,’ says Padel. We humans might not be quite as magnetically programmed as birds, but there is still something that pushes us on, urges us to take the risk and to succeed as a species. There is another aspect to migration too, not quite as romantic and beautiful. The wars, the discrimination, death, hatred – Padel explores these with an objectivity of an artist and a philosopher.
Mara comes from Latin and means ‘bitter’. Mara, or ‘mer’, appear in many languages and often mean something horrifying, like Buddhist’s Mara, the demon of illusion and death, or even the root of the Russian word smjertj, meaning ‘death’. Padel came to associate this dark meaning with the crossing she witnessed at the river Mara inKenya where thousands of wildebeests crossed the river as they do every year. Hundreds of them were eaten on the spot by crocodiles but the rest survived and got to the other side, only to take the journey back in a few months. Hundreds of wildebeests die but the species survive. Death is the end but it is also a beginning. Our migration is personal and often difficult and yet it is at the root of our civilisation and brings amazing transformation both to the migrants and to those whose land the migrants make their new home.
Any Cop?: The Mara Crossing is a brilliant exploration of our essence, a philosophical book that skilfully brings together science and history, prose and poetry. Those who consider themselves migrants would love Padel’s reflections of what motivates us to take a journey. But those who have never left their home would enjoy it just as much, for we are all migrants in one way or another.