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Poetry Workshop with Ruth Padel

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Recently the poet and novelist (and naturalist), Ruth Padel gave a poetry workshop at the Synagogue.  The following is her assessment and some new poems.


Seven people signed up for the course. Some knew each other well, others a little, one had come from Ayios Nikolaos for the week and knew nothing of the synagogue.

No one knew what to expect. At the most, they hoped they might write one poem during the week. As it turned out, most ended up with four or five. Not always finished poems, but poems they will work on later. The group hopes now to carry on meeting, sharing their work in person or online.

We met for four long group morning workshops Monday to Thursday, and I saw members of the group individually in the early afternoons. We followed up with two-hour afternoon workshops, Monday to Wednesday.

The group were wonderfully supportive of each other. They came to trust each other; things emerged in their poems that surprised and sometimes alarmed them but they went with it. They were generous to each other, suggesting words, really listening to each other, and were a delight to work with.

On Thursday we polished chosen poems from each member and practised reading techniques, at first in the library and then in the synagogue itself. In the evening they read out these chosen poems in the synagogue to a small invited audience.

We concentrated on being specific: finding the universal in the particular, the large profound emotions in tiny concrete detail. The synagogue was crucial: the way that you find the profound and the spiritual through concrete detail, however small, was all around us.

Since it was the Seder on the Friday before the workshop, I included some poem-generating exercises motifs from the Haggadah – questions the children ask, the different children inside us, the idea that the word “Egypt” in Hebrew also means “narrow” and “restricted,” the sense of coming out into the wilderness wondering if it might not be better to return to the safety if restriction.

The five exercises that produced most poems were about a mother’s kitchen and a father’s childhood; about an object in the synagogue and a door in the synagogue; and about an encounter.

I feel the leader of a poetry workshop should do the exercises at the same time as the group. These often don’t work particularly well but I do them anyway. But this week, whether it was the special group or doing it in the Synagogue, or a mix of the two, some of the poems I wrote myself did come alive. So I have included them here. It was a real privilege to spend such a concentrated week thinking about poems, and writing them, in and around Etz Hayyim.

Ruth Padel, Hania, April 13th 2012

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If you sit down and look through a repeating sheaf

of open doors –  double folds to the west

where the Sabbath bride enters at sundown,

double folds to the east where the ghosts gather

asking us to listen, please listen, remember –

and carry on looking, taking in

the brassware, turnable ring-handles,

knobs and side-locks, and above them

semi-circles of stained pine fitting the frame

to each soft white arch, you see

a strip of green. Lobes of an iris leaf.

Young fern and the naked blue stem

of a rose. Forked trunk of a pomegranate tree.


I met him in the courtyard at twilight

where they put up the tents at Sukkot.

A wanderer who had come into his own.

The olive-tree had been hard-pruned

along its branches. Only the tips were in leaf,

grey fingers stretching into the light

but you could see the new growth starting.

The roots were crazing the floor

of pebbles up into a mound like a veruka

and I thought of the ceramic black bird

my mother notched in the centre of her pies

whose yellow beak cracked the crust.

He had a cello in his hand, the spike

cantilevered between one pale sea-

pebble and the next. The grain maroon –

as if someone had dunked it in mammoth-blood –

but peat-brown under the f-holes, like swirls

in a mountain stream that leads to the tarn.

It wasn’t all bad, he said. I ran my finger

through stone grooves round the cavity

where a tap hangs over a cup on a silver chain.

I lifted an amphora handle, stuck

to the lip and part of the flank

of a broken jar face-down under the tree

as if trying to keep a lid on rising roots.

The past is not where you left it. The corridor

you didn’t follow, an arch into a cloister,

the half-seen winding stair and that door

you never opened into the wood:

they whirl within, cracking the floor.


I am looking too hard, or this scene

is looking too hard at me. Rabbi Evlagon in black

beside seven naked bulbs, the first electric light

in town. What of the chandelier, a shiver of gold

chrysanthemum. Or, if you prefer, the roof?

And the whole island about to be lit up

like a Christmas tree. Eggs dropped by aeroplanes,

who could have foreseen that? This is prayer

in the light, for the first time. A dreaming

into chinks between square stones

gleaming, edge to edge. Chain, bevel, flex

and rope – and no way out. No eye at all

for in-between thinking, as the glare goes out

like a drop laid on the tongue. Listen, says the dark.


The iron lamp on the outside wall is on

and shouldn’t be. It is a cage of wasted light

in daytime, and the wise child would turn it off.

But I don’t. I sit under it after the rain

in this back courtyard by broken inscriptions

and pebbles on the graves of rabbis.

We are out in the wilderness now, a dripping square

of green and white, and behind us is the word

for Egypt: narrow, constrained, but an easy life.

Do you want to go back?


To speak of distance, the sanctuary lamp:

something you must do or find

and a world you must escape. Never mind

ghost-rumours of an immigration gate.

Grab a revamped passport. Speak of hope,

born as she always is on the site of loss:

a cinnamon bird

with a thousand resistance strategies

fretting her wings like mica charms

or ancient pilgrim songs

sewn in a Book of Psalms. The task

is to assimilate. To move between

the languages – in your case

Hebrew, Turkish, French and Greek –

and celebrate your journey to the shrine.

Everyone’s crossing is a pilgrimage.

The hard thing is to pass; harder still, to fold

those wings, to drop the mask

and translate old words

into new. Jump to it. You’ll find

fresh bearings for a crossing-place

somewhere. This is our exodus: cliffs of fall

on a floating island. Here is our constitution.

And here are the moon and sun

in never-before-seen positions, struggling to be heard.