The Emerald Tablet; Set in Gold

Ruth Padel

The Emerald Tablet

for Alberto Manguel and Craig Stephenson

This is to do with lostness
     with believing that the truth
is buried in some special place
     difficult to find

and some hero of ancient wisdom
Moses       Borges       Gandalf
that stern but kind
omniscient oracle-giving grandfather you never had
will pop out of the green       out of the woodwork
to rescue and reveal it to you.

It will be encrypted on a slab of emerald
     in exquisite bas-relief lettering
     similar to the earliest Phoenician script
by the king of a forgotten world.

It will contain formulae for an antique magic
     going back to early Egypt
     transparent in our world as a flame in daylight
but still with power to burn

and will tell you that what is inward
     buried in earth       in flesh       and in your mind
     is also the bright surface of the world outside
and is divine.

It will start by saying above is the same as below
meaning       I think       our loneliness is not alone
and will go on to say that spirit
        your own spirit but also a universal energy
        which consoles
        if you feel you belong

is not trying to split away
      from atoms of your body
      as       we are told
      the Christians say
but is embedded in nature

and you       yourself       are the crucible
in which base metal can be turned to gold.

• •

This is to do with transformation
    to do with the dead
         and where they are in you
             once they are gone.

I have installed my mum’s photo
    in a wooden frame
          by the kettle
so we see her in the dark as we make coffee.

This is to do with astray.
Above is the same as below
so I trickle down the black iron nerve
of a station I don’t understand

      I have lost my mobile phone
            with its mysteriously living map

the blue pulsar of identity has disappeared
and the section of my little foldout guide
                  is scuffed       torn       unreadable
                        exactly where I was hoping to go.

• •

Value. Loss. Looking back
where do you start       to recover
that pealing of bells
you hadn’t known you’d taken for granted
when somebody who really
                                          knows you
                                                           gets it?

One sleepless night after the funeral
I saw for sale on the net
an Emerald Tablet Key-Ring made in Seville
a resin replica of what it might
have looked like       verified
by the International Guild of Alchemists.

I sent off for one       but the resin feels like soapy biscuit
and the mystic marks mean nothing. Who knows
what it looked like anyway? All they have
is the words. People say Balinas the Wise
discovered it in the eighth century
he entered a cave in Sri Lanka

saw a statue of Hermes   god of dreams
climbed down into the vault beneath
where an old man was sitting on a throne
holding a tablet glowing in the dark       green
     as mistletoe on a winter branch.
Balinas jotted down what it said       in Arabic.

Jung saw it too       in a dream of the unconscious
as a shimmering table of green stone
     in an Italian loggia
above white rocks and a sapphire lagoon
     that sunlit place where we might all feel in touch
with what is deepest in us

longing as we do       for the adept
who will see our truth and not be appalled
and who will write down
                   in Arabic
                   or in a dream
what the writing in our own cave means
and turn it into a key       to live by.

We are all trying       in our way       to understand
secrets of nature       secrets of the soul.
Why are we talking of the end of the world?

• •

We’ve met as arranged       in the glass hall
                                                         of a library full of light
and talk of the lure of hidden knowledge.
Over salad and linguini
all the animals of the wilderness
the shy white helleborine orchid
and the hidden paths
                        to and from the cedar forest
mourn       with the backward grace
of a cry from the broken-open heart
for all our mothers. Elegy
is trembling in the shadow
of the faded half-moon globes
on their slender pistachio columns
marking each descent to the subway.

• •

Trust me. I’m giving you an amulet.
This is your journey       no one else’s.
Your passage       through love
         friendship       grief
is and will go on being a perpetual process.

Touch the threshold slab
from days of your childhood.
Climb the worn stairway
to the terrace of York stone
patched with rosemary tortuosa and blue thyme.

Walk the parapet       your hair blowing in the wind
and study the foundations
     laid by the Seven Sages       remember?
Enter the temple       the sanctum
unveil the box
unlatch the bronze lock
untie the silk cord
     above the hidden opening
and take out a tablet of emerald
that tells of trials you endured.

The flowering orchards
and towering ziggurat say
     This is you.
This is what you have made
of yourself so far.
You quested
to boundaries of earth
for the meaning of life
and found it in your own backyard.

The tablet says you will emerge
in a magical garden by the sea
and enter the tavern of loss
which is also the moment of truth.

Set in Gold

This is death       late
              gentlest it could
                   she was ninety-seven       had to happen

she was shatterproof
                    her last word
                             after Where am I?

when we said we were all here
       with her
               was (encouraging us) Great

and Pluto took her
         lord of the underworld
                    the only god sworn to tell the truth.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter