The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick
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Today we are learning to … • Understand and analyse The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick
Where? When? What? Iran/Iraq War / First Persian Gulf War 1980-1988 First Gulf War - USA v Iraq (over Kuwait) 1990-1991
‘Robert Minhinnick is a poet of the moment… his best work takes you and places you slap bang in the middle of an experience. Like a mini tardis.’ (The Big Issue)
• Born 1952, South Wales • A poet, essayist and novelist. • Travelled widely - poems such as ‘The Yellow Palm’ and ‘After the Stealth Bomber’ refer to the first Gulf War and draw on his visit to Iraq in 1998. • Here he was informed about the many varieties of palm trees in the city and their importance for food andshade. He was also told how the palm trees had suffered from pollution and warfare. • In a recent interview he said he does not intend his poems to have a moral message • The poet explains that he tries in his poems to combine drama, colour and texture • He says, ‘I think in images and I like to write in images. That's what writing is all about’
As I made my way down Palestine Street I watched a funeral pass – all the women waving lilac stems around a coffin made of glass and the face of the man who lay within who had breathed a poison gas. As I made my way down Palestine Street I heard the call to prayer and I stopped at the door of the golden mosque to watch the faithful there but there was blood on the walls and the muezzin’s eyes were wild with his despair.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I saw a Cruise missile, a slow and silver caravan on its slow and silver mile, and a beggar child turned up his face and blessed it with a smile. As I made my way down Palestine Street under the yellow palms I saw their branches hung with yellow dates all sweeter than salaams, and when that same child reached up to touch, the fruit fell in his arms.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I met two blind beggars And into their hands I pressed my hands with a hundred black dinars; and their salutes were those of the Imperial Guard I n the Mother of all Wars. As I made my way down Palestine Street I smelled the wide Tigris, the river smell that lifts the air in a city such as this; but down on my head fell the barbarian sun that knows no armistice.
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by Robert Minhinnick
Palestine Street Al-Rasheed Street • A major street in Baghdad (also called Falastin Street). • FUN FACT: the street that inspired the poet was actually Al-Rasheed Street • “I remember one interviewee telling me about the hundreds of types of palm tree found in Baghdad, and the effect of traffic pollution and warfare on those trees.”
Key analysis points 1. Under Saddam Hussein there were many human rights abuses within the country, notably against the Kurds. From 1980 to 1988 Iraq was at war with its neighbour Iran. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War. Most recently, in 2003, an American-led coalition, including British forces, invaded. 2. Contextual detail gives us some idea of where the poem is set – currency (dinars), quotation from Saddam Hussain (‘mother of all wars’), river (Tigris) 3. The poem describes the effects of conflict on the people of the city. 4. The voice of the poem is that of someone observing events. 5. Each stanza/sentence focuses on detail of a specific ‘snapshot’ image 6. The poem focuses on a city marred by conflict, violence and suffering 7. Some positive images counteract this – can you find images or ideas suggesting beauty, kindness, co-operation and peace?
1st image introduces death and grief.
No blame is attached here, we are just given an objective presentation of grief.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I watched a funeral pass – all the women waving lilac stems around a coffin made of glass and the face of the man who lay within who had breathed a poison gas. Look out for use of senses and colour to bring depiction of city to life.
Chemical weapons such as mustard gas and chlorine gas were used against Iran during the Iran–Iraq War and against the Kurdish minority. Also echoes other conflicts (e.g. WW1, gas chambers).
Repetition of first line in all stanzas –effect?
Devout nature of the city’s inhabitants is corroded by warfare.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I heard the call to prayer and I stopped at the door of the golden mosque to watch the faithful there but there was blood on the walls and the muezzin’s eyes were wild with his despair.
Muezzin – the person who calls the faithful to prayer at mosque
Alliteration emphasises certain phrases and details.
Even the soldiers are presented as victims.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I met two blind beggars And into their hands I pressed my hands Why ‘black’? with a hundred black dinars; and their salutes were those of the Imperial Guard in the Mother of all Wars. President Saddam Hussein’s description of the first Gulf War.
Imperial Guard – unit of volunteers (largely) who originally served as Saddam Hussein’s personal bodyguard – but their remit broadened into wider military involvement.
No people in this stanza, just a sensual description of the city with the smell of the river.
Words of war – what others are there?
Structure – each of the 6 self-contained stanzas is a single, long sentence
As I made my way down Palestine Street I smelled the wide Tigris, River flowing through the river smell that lifts the air Baghdad in a city such as this; but down on my head fell the barbarian sun that knows no armistice. Irony, that the city is supposedly living in peace, which the sun doesn’t respect.
Personification: city under attack from the sun – pervasiveness of war and being under constant attack. Lots of sibilance– why?
Cruise missile: a guided missile that can carry conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear warheads. Cruise missiles were used by both ‘sides’ during the first Gulf War. Striking imagery metaphor.
As I made my way down Palestine Street I saw a Cruise missile, a slow and silver caravan on its slow and silver mile, and a beggar child turned up his face and blessed it with a smile. Deliberate image of innocence - cruel irony that the child ‘blessed’ the apparently magical flying bomb with a ‘smile’ – an emphasis on the fact these are peace-loving and innocent people.
CARAVAN: 1. group of travellers journeying together for safety when passing through deserts, hostile territory, etc. 2. a large covered vehicle for conveying passengers, goods, etc.
A date-producing tree frequently mentioned in the Qu’ran. The tree’s leaves, bark and fruit are used for a variety of purposes including timber, rope, food and fuel.
an Arabic greeting meaning ‘peace’ used mainly by Muslims throughout the world. In Middle East, accompanied by two or three light cheek kisses, usually between people of the same gender.
As I made my way down Palestine Street The Cruise missile under the yellow palms or the fruit? I saw their branches hung with yellow dates Cruise missile likened to fruit? all sweeter than salaams, and when that same child reached up to touch, the fruit fell in his arms. Childhood innocence destroyed by war?
References to ‘salaams’ and the beauty and bounty of the palm tree counters the images of war and violence – optimistic ending?
Ambiguous ending: alternative paths for the future of Baghdad? Gathering bounty? Or falling of the fruit? Or is the war seen by the future as their ‘fruit’?
Questions • The poem is full of colour. What impression do the colours give of the city? • Consider the voice of the speaker and the tone of the poem. How does this contribute to the impact of the poem? • Is this an optimistic or a pessimistic poem? Find evidence for either interpretation of the poem.
Structure and form • Loosely in the form of a ballad poem. • From 14th century used to tell a tragic story. Very traditional form. • Simple language and images, repeated refrain, rhyme scheme of ABCBDB. • Usually 4 lines per stanzas, 6 here. • Effect? – Reassuring familiarity in an unfamiliar city? – Allows us to concentrate on the disturbing images and ideas rather than trying to ‘interpret’ the poem.
Structure and Form • Well suited to presenting a view of the city and its people, crumbling under constant conflict. • The simplicity of the form has a powerful impact: intense and complex situation told simply. • 6 vignettes (snapshots, sketches) of life in the city which accumulate to show the overall slow destruction of the city - made more poignant by the glimpses of beauty and peace that appear (women with lilac flowers, prayer, mosque, smiles, blessing, etc). • Juxtaposition of beauty and peace with war and violence: ‘golden mosque’ despoiled with blood, the blind beggars are ghosts of former selves, a Cruise missile entrances a child. • • Sensual imagery – look carefully at the verbs showing what the poet does. This suggests a place full of colour, life and movement, and a tangible tension with the destruction and devastation which is also there. • Ambiguity Minhinnick presents the reader with many contradictory details. In Stanza 4, the smell of the Tigris ‘lifts’ the air, then ‘down … fell the barbarian sun’. In Stanza 3, the act of giving is rewarded with a military salute. Is the city rising or falling, or is its future perhaps in the balance?