RUTH PADEL

 

The Soho Leopard

I

Dean Street

I was never your devoted lover. It was gossip,
   That. All wrong. I am the Amur Leopard no
      One knows about, the thirty-fifth, each eye
An emerald. I'm passing by Quo Vadis,
   St Anne's Court and Sunset Strip

On a summer evening trembling – water-muscle
   Breaking on the knife-
      Edge of a dam – with promises of headlong
Encounters that might change
   A life. I never ended everything between us so

You wouldn't lose your house and kids,
   Endanger school fees and the tax rebate,
      Your salary, your mother's Irish bonds.
That wasn't me. It was a question of identity,
   Mistaken. Poachers will get me anyway by and by,

So the mafia can re-package me
   As os pantherii, yellow pills in ivory hexagons
      Brush-painted with a Cinnamon Tree
Hieroglyph, the remedy
   For impotence in Hong Kong.

But I'm still leopard now, frostfur, quicksilver, planting pug-
   Marks all the way down Dean Street, past Café Lazeez,
      Trying not to hear through the open door
Of the Crown and Two Chairmen pub
   That ballad you used to sing. "You Needed Me".

I'm watching saffron awnings spill white zeds of light
   On Il Siciliano's pavement tablecloth
      But catching my own reflection rippling over
A Choi Sun figurine (the god of wealth, riding
   A tiger, holding a block of gold) in the window of

The Wen Tai Sun News Agency, gives me -
   Or let's take this out of self and call my leopard "her" -
      A shock. She pauses, on the dimpled granite kerb
Of Chapone Place. She's all herself, and free,
   But this whole territory's patrolled

By her lost mate. She's wearing her endangered heart
   On every nerve-end, just in case
      His silvery silhouette and head-on-one-side smile
Pad up at the Webshack Internet Café.
   Dean Street? This is Dream Street. There's nothing here,

No one to marvel at the sole nivalis in the wild
   Zoologists still haven't counted.
      She'd send statistics reeling if they spied
Her rosette jigsaw of
   Black coral, broken daffodil.

II

Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon

She's considering gateways to another world.
   Stars of Orion's Belt, the Inca site
      Of ultimate creation,
Obsidian mines at Teotihuacan,
   Haunted by the gentle kinkajou,

The Pyramid of the Sun she climbed
   In the Avenue of the Dead,
       Bristling with the Storm God's hooky heads
And water-lilies streaming from his mouth,
   Or the cloisters of Quetzalpapalotl,

Palace-of-the-Quelza-Bird-and-Butterfly,
   Guarded by parrot-gods with mica flames for eyes.
      She's got to send her leopard mind
Elsewhere. She really, really doesn't want to face
   What she's learning now about that mate of hers,

The centre of her jungle for five years. In a minute
   She'll have to stop believing he was good.
      Let her concentrate instead
On theatre lighting. Stage directions, say,
   For Beauty and the Beast.

III

The Castle of the Beast

The palace is a star in the wrinkled forest
   And Beauty has to go there of her own free will.
      Though she's afraid (she'd be mad not
To be), she tells her dad, "You mustn't doubt the Beast".
   When she steps into Beast's kingdom, avenues

Of paper pear-trees blossom and the audience
   Hear tambourines. For this castle is the world
      Of melody. Every action in it, every thought,
Has its music counterpart. The clockwork servants
   Brushing Beauty's hair, are shimmery chromatic scales

On pipes and mandolin. Beauty warms her hands
   At the coal-scuttle's mystic grin
      And we suddenly get guitars. Everything
Is moonsilk, lemonpale; invisibly policed.
   The carpet blushes peach for her delight.

Glass cases, caught in tinsel flakes of light from candelabra,
   Glitter with cup-hilt rapiers, schiavonas - blades
      Inlaid with mother-of-pearl -
And a white-enamelled, silver-chased estoo.
   Beauty comes to rest on a golden swing

That represents her heart. She's utterly at sea about what she's in
   For, who she's supposed to be, but she has ghost-faith
      In a Beast she's never seen. She can even hear him breathe.
"I'm aware you'll eat me, Beast," she says into the wings.
   Judging by the noise, Beast must be ravenous.

His breathing is miked and amplified, the rasp
   Of Lord Darth Vadar from Star Wars. When Beast appears
      On stilts, a towering hedgehog-stork
In oriole feathers, whiskery chestnut fur, he has the face
   Of a rubicund wart-hog

But you see the actor's mouth behind the mask
   And living, vulnerable eyes – a sheepdog
      Listening for thunder – under diamond paste
Tears. When he smooths his fur wrist ruffles (Beast
   Is fond of money and its fabrics) we can hear

Tchaikovsky strings in dominant sevenths:
   Sonic fireworks ripping to explosion
      In crashing north-east wind.
"All my rooms," he says, "are made
   To please you. All I want to do is give you joy."

He may even think he means it. But, no getting away
   From it, she's a prisoner
      In his gold-plate masquerade,
His Salon of Small Clowns in millefiore pink,
   His Hall of Singing Triangles and Mirrors.

IV

Beast Would Like to Be Different


That night she dreams she's dancing with a prince
   In snowy crêpe de chine; in crimson turban, sash
      And scimitar. Next day
She finds a locket on the floor
   In the Chamber of Longed-For Harmonies.

A clash of cymbals as the audience glimpse
   The face within - that prince again, the one poor
      Beast is desperate to become.
Corridors echo with his whisper, "Set me free".
   The prisoner, you see, is Beast: in the pelf and whirl

Of his own image, and the enchanted-palace way
   He looks at things. But rescuing him will be a daunting task.
      What'll it take from you, girl? How if you give up your life
To save him from himself? What's real in him? Suppose
   He can only operate behind a mask

Or in a dream? Even princes are fiction,
   Mostly. What's the betting there's a man in there
      You'd turn out not to like? Too bad. Beauty has no option -
That's the deal. Only someone who can treasure Beast,
   Trust him for what he is, can set him free.

V

The Soho Theatre Bar

Beauty, the Stage Directions have decided,
   Must be generous and strong. Devote
      Herself to his angry need, and long
For that wire breath on her throat at night. She's got to say
   With ninety-nine-carat genuine delight,

"My beloved is asleep all round me. This
   Is who I am. I'm his". She must feel welded to him,
      Welcome him in every orifice. Any
Chamber he can find in her shall be his earth.
   She will protect him from

That sense he labours under that he's got a skin
   Too few, instead of many.
      She must adore his Sinbad tongue
Dancing sambas over hers, become
   A passionate, prime-time fan of the prince within –

Beast Beautiful, Beast Hero. Beast of the Golden Sword.
   She's got to calm
      His Kidnapped panic at
A giantess in the sky, the mother-witch
   Who turned him into Beast. Beauty's got to cherish

(And keep mum about it) Beast-as-he-doesn't-wish-
   To-see-himself: as terrified. She knows
      The prince inside him won't survive
Without her. She goes on, however raw things get…
   What happened? There was rescue, yes,

But it didn't take. Maybe the witch-spell was too strong.
   Beauty escaped. She did it for his sake
      (He was torn in two, and holding him
Was trying to lullaby an earthquake),
   But also, if she's honest, for her own.

So this is the Amur Leopard on the hotline to your heart, calling
   From the Soho Theatre bar. The nearly-to-last
      Snow Leopard, hoping to help you feel
More easy with what’s happened. (You were my care.
   I must have been your lover, after all.)

But the man you were, with me, was an endangered species
   And has left the world. Beauty slinks back
      To find her sweetheart sinking to the ground
In the Walk of Withered Roses. Treacherous; and blank
   About it. No more songs. And no other way to tell

This story, play this scene, apparently; though I,
   In every alias I can think of, hanker after one that's kinder
      To them both. The Beast (or Prince, whatever) falling
Back in her arms that always, always wished him well, to—
   What did you expect? To die.


The Golden Boot


Yaguara, Beast-That-Kills-in-One-Bound,
with his flaring nostrils, pointed teeth,
his black and gold. The God of Amazon;
the Over-Lord of Fire. Men scrambled to bag

a peccary or capybara with bare hands
and gob them raw. Jaguar had arrows, forty kinds
of bow. Jaguar dined on chops, black juices, flambé,
gravy, roast. But masters, hear the moral.

Jaguar was generous. Took pity; brought home
a hungry Hunter, taught him crossbow, longbow, pipe.
In Jaguar's cave, for the first time, Man
saw yellow-red tines through dark. Saw flame,

saw smoke. Watched biting flies stop biting,
the rainforest draw back its damp on the floor
in a skirt of paling mud. Grilled crocodile steak,
broiled peacock? Fab; so new, so chic—

went down a treat, not even touching the sides.
You're everything I've ever loved, said Man that night.
Then Man put in the golden boot. Got up one morning,
stole the armoury, stole fire.

Men are afraid of Jaguar now, the way you are
when there's someone you've betrayed.
You tell yourself you had to, it's OK,
don't want to see yourself as bad; but keep away.

Now Jaguar lives alone in jungle, trying a fall
with the odd anaconda, killing his prey
in a single bite. Not the neck, you understand, but clean
through the temporal bones of the skull.