Poetry Reading: A Chilean Pine in Wales

The monkey-puzzle tree tosses its boughs
Like great green fishbones swimming on the wind,
The wind that swept the high Welsh hillside bare
And tumbled every stone from stone to ruin
Where once a farmhouse stood beneath its shade,
Now roofless, roomless, shelterless and lone.
Made fanciful, I wonder at the cat
That stripped the fishflesh from these kippered bones
And who would hang them up and let them grow
So mouldering and green – so dead and full
Of life. This might have been a home of giants;
These branches might have been the skeletons
Of salmon, spawned from him that secret lies
In Llyn Llifon, the Ancient of the World
That once bore Arthur’s knights upon his shoulders.
The family that planted first the seed
Is vanished into history or myth,
Yet still the Chilean pine remains and thrives.
You might have thought it swam its way across
The wide Atlantic on its own, so strong
And agilely the branches tailfins flick
With stroke on stroke upon the fluid air.

From my diary of the time: ‘Sunday [29th May 2012] I dared the rain and high winds & set off to Neath with the ramblers. We had an interesting walk on the Afan forest trail. I enjoyed the windswept ridge, & the ruined farmhouse where we stopped for lunch, with the wildly out of place monkey puzzle tree tossing its branches above us, like great green fishbones trying to swim on the wind. Unfortunately, by the walk’s end my arms were stinging with the cold, & my toes wet in my boots, so it was a relief to reach the minibus & be back to James and Julie’s house for tea and biscuits.’

The first image of the fishbones was with me from the start, but the rest of the poem was slow in coming. The tree was stuck in my imagination. Flourishing and verdant and completely out of place, it seemed to have a mythic power that was completely disproportionate to its origins. It reminded me in some ways of the dragon bones I once saw, which they still keep chained up outside the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. The guidebook said that they were probably bones of a mammoth, or a rhinoceros, or a whale, but it was impossible to believe they were anything other than a dragon. Equally, it was impossible to believe that such a tree had been so prosaically carried across the ocean and planted here, as the noticeboards said, and I began to think of other explanations.

The salmon of Llyn LLifon is one of the most fascinating figures in the surviving Welsh mythology. He first appears in the magnificently bonkers tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, in the Mabinogion, where Kei and Bedwyr (Kay and Bedivere) ride upon his shoulders to the rescue of the imprisoned knight, Mabon son of Modron. I borrowed him from a wonderful early R.S. Thomas poem, ‘The Ancients of the World‘.

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