For my many train journeys last week, I had the perfect travelling companion: Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing (2012). I was already a fan of her book on her great great grandfather Charles Darwin, in which she manages to capture the character of his life, but also the character of his times, showing how the challenges of modernity, religious doubt and the advance of science were part of the fabric of Darwin's personal experience. In that earlier book, Padel skilfully weaves together her own words and those of Darwin from his letters and writings to make a narrative which is also an experiment in story-telling through verse. The Mara Crossing approaches a not unrelated topic, that of migration, and there are again many references to evolution in this book. But what is particularly fascinating, apart from the tremendous amount the reader (or, at least, this reader) learns about the natural world, is the mixture of prose and sections of thematically linked poems which structure the narrative. The prose sections aren't exactly essays. Framed within a personal narrative of migration (the poet moving house), they combine observations on nature and anecdotes of the people and places Padel encountered while researching and writing the book. She writes movingly and humanely of our common fate as migrants, from the very first migration of cells to the detention centres of 'fortress Europe', and makes a powerful case for tolerance in world whose ecology is threatened as its population explodes, a process both driven by and driving migration. Then, in the poems themselves, particular scenes and characters are evoked again from new perspectives and in greater concentration.
I certainly found the book compelling, and many of the poems stand alone as excellent pieces which would work well without the context provided by the overall story, which is nothing less than ambitious than a history of life on the planet. Having said that, there are times when the particular figure or episode presented in the prose did not feel like it needed revisiting in the form of a poem, of rather where the poem itself did not seem to add a great deal, but I think that is more a side-effect of what is, in the final judgement, a very successful experiment. It has certainly made me think about my place in the world differently - and that is not something many contemporary poets achieve.