Poem of the week this week comes from Ruth Padel’s Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, published by Chatto & Windus. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth was shortlisted for the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize. You can hear Ruth reading from this collection here.
I saw him on YouTube. He was learning the martial art
that masks fighting as dance; the rocking, foot-
to-foot ginga bracing him for kicks, swipes
and thistle-light acrobalance. He was finding how to spin,
feint, soar with his opponent. You could worry about him,
at least I did, but I saw he was loved. A favourite
perhaps. Enough anyway to give hope a chance
despite his lumbering, faintly victim, stance
as the two circled each other, holding their arms
off their torsos like cormorants drying their wings.
He was seven or eight, wearing glasses. Eagerness
shone out of him inside the ring of boys
chanting to a tambourine. They knew slaves in Brazil
made the rules. Only by dance do you learn how to fight.
Only by fight how to dance. And also that kids like them,
on the West Bank, could learn this in Hebron.
I saw him on YouTube in Jalazoun Refugee Camp.
The teacher, laughing, supervised falls, accidents,
cat’s whisker escapes. I imagined he was telling them
Squat and spin! Flat on your hands! Aim your kick in his face –
let him duck – then cartwheel away. This is all about you
but you’re nothing without him. Let the dance-fight-dance
set you free. Free of the six-lane motorway
shaking the camp with its sorrowful vibrations.
Free of the twenty-foot wall of cement, a stage set for Macbeth.
Grey olives flickered beyond, on hills where I guessed
older men like his grandfather were born
and are forbidden to graze sheep or tend their trees again.
While the boys danced, I pictured the flame of a split aorta
in the chest of a man who has lived all his days in the camps
and will die in one now. Afternoon flowed
through rows of tents like mist coming off black jade
as each became the other’s mirror. They were twin lights
in a sconce, tiger cubs perfecting life skills – pounce timing,
split speed for the roda – each pouring all he was
into the little space between self’s flying heel and other’s face.