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 masqu?, 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

Last updated May 02, 2015