ICICLES ROUND A TREE IN DUMFRIESSHIRE by Ruth Padel
We're talking different kinds of vulnerability here.
These icicles aren't going to last for ever
Suspended in the ultra violet rays of a Dumfries sun.
But here they hang, a frozen whirligig of lightning,
And the famous American sculptor
Who scrambles the world with his tripod
For strangeness au naturel, got sunset to fill them.
It's not comfortable, a double helix of opalescent fire
Wrapping round you, swishing your bark
Down cotton you can't see,
On which a sculptor planned his icicles,
Working all day for that Mesopotamian magic
Of last light before the dark
In a suspended helter-skelter, lit
By almost horizontal rays
Making a mist-carousel from the House of Diamond,
A spiral of Pepsodent darkening to the shadowfrost
Of cedars at the Great Gate of Kiev.
Why it makes me think of opening the door to you
I can't imagine. No one could be less
Of an icicle. But there it is -
Having put me down in felt-tip
In the mystical appointment book,
You shoot that quick
Inquiry-glance, head tilted, when I open up,
Like coming in's another country,
A country you want but have to get used to, hot
From your bal masquÐ¹, making sure
That what you found before's
Still here: a spiral of touch and go,
Lightning licking a tree
Imagining itself Aretha Franklin
Singing "You make me feel like a natural woman"
In basso profondo,
Firing the bark with its otherworld ice
The way you fire, lifting me
Off my own floor, legs furled
Round your trunk as that tree goes up
At an angle inside the lightning, roots in
The orange and silver of Dumfries.
Now I'm the lightning now you, you are,
As you pour yourself round me
Entirely. No who's doing what and to who,
Just a tangle of spiral and tree.
You might wonder about sculptors who come all this way
To make a mad thing that won't last.
You know how it is: you spend a day, a whole life.
Then the light's gone, you walk away
To the Galloway Paradise Hotel. Pine-logs,
Cutlery, champagne - OK,
But the important thing was making it.
Hours, and you don't know how it'll be.
Then something like light
Arrives last moment, at speed reckoned
Only by horizons: completing, surprising
With its three hundred thousand
Kilometres per second. Still, even lightning has its moments of panic.
You don't get icicles catching the midwinter sun
In a perfect double helix in Dumfriesshire every day.
And can they be good for each other,
Lightning and tree? It'd make anyone,
Wouldn't it, afraid? That rowan would adore
To sleep and wake up in your arms
But's scared of getting burnt. And the lightning might ask, touching wood,
"What do you want of me, now we're in the same
Atomic chain?" What can the tree say?
"Being the centre of all that you are to yourself -
That'd be OK. Being my own body's fine
But it needs yours to stay that way."
No one could live for ever in
A suspended gleam-on-the-edge,
As if sky might tear any minute. Or not for ever for long. Those icicles
Won't be surprise any more. The little snapped threads
Blew away. Glamour left that hill in Dumfries.
The sculptor went off with his black equipment.
Adzes, twine, leather gloves.
What's left is a photo of
A completely solitary sight
In a book anyone might open.
But whether our touch at the door gets forgotten
Or turned into other sights, light, form,
I hope you'll be truthful
To me. At least as truthful as lightning,
Skinning a tree.
THIS POEM WON THE 1996 National Poetry Prize