The Possums in the Book of Kells

A poem by Pete Hay

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Published in ‘Physick’ (2016)

 

‘A strange group of animals’. Mice perhaps,
or kittens perched bizarre upon adult backs.
That does stretch a long catgut, O my fuddled scholars!
They are not mice. Not cats. Not remotely. Soft-eyed,
wet- and sharp-snouted, prehensile-tailed, marsupialine,
these are the possums – the ringtails – of my ovata bush.

Across Wallace’s Line, westward night-lumbering,
they cross mountain passes, the sinking isthmi,
skirt treeless sands, thread belts of forest mast by mast,
shrink past the yellow eyes of cunning hunters,
breathe silently in the roof-tree dark
of trading dhows, junks, proas, triremes.

And fetch up here in Brendan’s Fair Isle,
cosy and secret in the shadowed cloisters
of a County Meath monastery.
They have made a monkey out of Wallace –
and of my compadres who sell them short.
Tomorrow New Zealand. But today the world.

 


Just too incredible? Well, it is of course. But go to folio 34, recto (plate 107 of the 1974 Thames and Hudson edition). ‘A strange group of animals’ is Francoise Henry’s observation in the accompanying commentary (p. 199), and the long-standing if tentative identification of the animals as ‘mice’ or ‘cats’ with ‘kittens’ is also reported there. Henry thinks ‘kittens’. I, meanwhile, have certainly played fast and loose with the truth in the final line. It is the brushtail, not the considerably more delicate ringtail, which is now feral and much-hated in New Zealand.