Four Poems

Ruth Padel

Versions of Alligator Creation

She made the world’s first alligator from a spine
   Of sugar-cane,

Binding the spring growth’s joints and knuckles,
   Then rind-peelings,

The eyes from saffron, tail from the leaves and fruit
   Of betel-nut,

Clay mould from a sheet of upish,
   Squelching from sheaths

Of betel-nut palm: and prayed
   It might have life.

Along the Yellow River, China’s Sorrow,
   The lemon-eyed

Chinese alligators burrow. Brandishing their mouths
   Of burning torches,

Their breath of brindled coals, and guided by their Lord,
   The Lung dragon,

They foretell rain in the Celestial Empire
   With their calls.

Ventricles of an Alligator’s Heart

… related more to birds, than lizards.
For a start,

   They architect up their nests from plants,
   Lay calcified eggs in them, go in –

   As dinosaurs must have done –
   For long-term parenting.

   Forget molecular tissues of the skin:
   Both boast an elongate ear canal,

   A muscled gizzard, and
   In both, my friend, you find

A total separation
Of the ventricles of the heart.

Bright Carpet, Midnight Glow

The alligator’s tapetum lucidum
   ‘Bright Carpet’, the reflective layer
Behind the retina – is brimming with guanin
   Crystals shimmering at night
Like they’ve taken fluorescent saffron to the lids.
An alligator eye is rimmed with yellow kohl
   Smacking of a subterranean philosopher, who knows
One day he’ll do his reflective duty, see the light.
   The eyes of adult males shine red.
Eyes of females and their young
Give off the greenish danger-glow
   Of the witch-fireball in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty,
Hypnotising a princess to prick her finger.

Eyes, nostrils, ears fit laterally on the head high up
   To breathe, and detect their prey.
When the whole beast’s submerged, the third eyelid,
   A transparent nictitating membrane, shuts
Like a beamy visor. This is how an alligator protects itself
   And its slowly metabolising brain. Scute pairs, rigid
Ferrules wrinkled up on dorsal armour, spherical bony plates
Straddling segments of vertebrae in declining size –
   We’re looking at a living dinosaur
(From deinos, cognate with ‘daemonic dread
And power’), the oldest life-form on the planet!
   Not that much evolution since the Late Triassic.
Behold our window on the world of ruling reptiles, and their eyes.

Inside the Alligator’s Mouth is Part of Its Outside Body

Pity the Louisiana alligator, that flashy, sequestered hide,
That inability to understand someone else’s mind
Or any of the more evolved life-forms, except as prey.
His vulnerability. His wishing to do better
That somehow never surfaces for long. A greedy child
Whose mouth’s inner skin belongs to his outside surface,
Sealed by a cartilaginous flap from the hungry throat.
Unlike the Tomistoma or Pacific gharial (they attack

Unprovoked), he has no salt glands stippling his tongue
And can be timid. But everyone sees him as a primitive:
An unpredictable predator, who flows with ambery, light-
Reflecting tears and then strikes back in passion.
As if, setting out to oil-charm with a smile,
He first of all sealed his soul in boiling saffron.