The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick

No war is a black and white conflict; the world is far too complicated a place for that. There have been reports of war written from every side of every conflict — on battlefields, from command centres, from soldiers and politicians, and, of course, from the casual people who just happen to live in war-torn worlds. Robert Minhinnick’s The Yellow Palm takes on the latter perspective, observing the influence of war from a vantage point far away, but not far enough to be spared its harsh brutalities. The Yellow Palm depicts a modern world in conflict and uses reality and metaphor interchangeably, creating a brand new world, one in which the pain of war is made palpable and tangible through simple observation.


The Yellow Palm Analysis

Stanza 1

“As I made my way down Palestine Street” is a repeating line throughout The Yellow Palm, which can be read in full here. As a precedent for each verse, it grounds the reader in the world of eastern Baghdad, Iraq (where the road exists in reality), and creates the image of both a very long street and also an important one. It also conveys a casual tone that sharply contrasts with the rest of The Yellow Palm. Making one’s way down a street is a casual, every day occurrence — being passed by a funeral is not (certainly not casual). The “coffin made of glass” is not typical practice, but certainly symbolizes the transparent nature of the grieving family. When the narrator looks at them, he sees the face of a fallen soldier, implied by the body being a man’s, who’s face is disfigured by poisonous gases. This could be a literal observation, but it is also likely that the narrator sees the funeral procession and knows immediately that the deceased individual is a soldier, suggesting that there is, at present, an ongoing war that would make such an event an unfortunately common occurrence.

There are six lines in this stanza, alternating long and short lines, with an ABAB rhyming pattern; this continues throughout the poem.

Stanza 2

Passing the funeral procession by, the narrator is still walking down Palestine Street — again, a call back to the reality of their everyday world. As they pass by a mosque, they hear the call to prayer (which occurs routinely as a part of the Islamic faith) and stop to watch the faithful pray. This too is another common occurrence, except that the walls of the mosque are spattered with blood, and the muezzin — a servant for a particular mosque, who is typically chosen based on their personality and character — is visibly shaken and pained.

This verse is very self-explanatory, and comes off as a simple observation into the real world without metaphors. A possible exception would be the observation of the “golden” mosque, which may simply be a metaphor to signify its high standing and strong faith, to contrast with the bloodstains on the wall and despair in its servants.

Stanza 3

In stanza 3 of The Yellow Palm, the narrator continues their journey down Palestine Street and meets two blind beggars. They decide to give them money (as a “dinar” is a common currency in Islamic countries), and the beggars respond with a soldier’s salute, one commonly used throughout the Gulf War, which Saddam Hussein commonly referred to as “The Mother of all Wars.” The description of the dinars as being “black” may also be an analogy to this — dinars are not created black, which suggests perhaps that the narrator does not feel good about the money, perhaps where it came from, or even where it’s going. If the beggars responded to the gesture with salutes, it is possible they are former soldiers, and the narrator does not agree with the ongoing war. Or perhaps the narrator has a source of income that is connected to the war, and is, one some level, grateful to be rid of the extra money.

Stanza 4

Although this next verse of The Yellow Palm doesn’t directly mention either the war or its influence on Palestine Street, the theme remains impressed within the words. The narrator begins to smell the Tigris, a river that runs through Baghdad, and it quickly becomes overpowering, shifting the entire feel of the city. The very smell of the water “lifts the air,” makes everything seem cleaner and more natural, more calm. At the same time, the narrator notes that the sun, barbaric in its merciless heat, is constantly present. To say the sun “knows no armistice” it to suggest that it is unrelenting, but the use of the word “armistice,” a military term for a formal agreement of ceasefire, indicates that the war is constantly on this person’s mind, to the point where even the sun is an enemy combatant in some capacity.

Stanza 5

The penultimate verse once again brings forth the contrast between an everyday walk down a city street and the abnormal reality of warfare. Today, the narrator walks down Palestine Street and looks up to see a Cruise missile soaring through the sky, the casual flight of an extremely powerful weapon that’s been launched for the purpose of doing harm. Directly contrasting that grim realization is another beggar, this time a child, who watches the projectile and smiles. Why the child smiles is a mystery, but as a metaphor, it works to strongly contrast the bringer of death and destruction with a bringer of smiles. For the narrator to watch the sky and believe that someone may well be experiencing their untimely final minute on Earth would be a terrible realization. But to see a child’s smile is something else, and for the first time throughout the entire poem, the reader is presented with a sense of hope.

Stanza 6

In the final verse, the reader is presented with the titular image of the poem, the yellow palm tree, an intentionally bright, vibrant colour. As the narrator watches, the beggar child reaches towards a yellow palm tree and is easily able to retrieve a date (a piece of fruit well-known for its sweetness). This verse continues the imagery that moves away from the war, and instead concludes The Yellow Palm with what is best described as a hopeful image — more hopeful than in the rest of the poem, at least. The image of a beggar being able to retrieve fruit from a constantly growing supply may well be an analogy on the continuing and growing nature of the world, and the access good people have to good things (the child who expresses joy despite their dire circumstances accessing the sweet fruit that will keep their hunger and thirst in check). For the speaker, this yellow palm is a hopeful symbol for better things to come.

Robert Minhinnick has created a powerful image of war by creating a poem that does not directly focus on it. The funeral procession, the bloodstained mosque, the beggars’ salute, the negative personification of the sun, and the Cruise missile are all elements of the deadly battle that can be seen as an observer, even from far away, beyond the direct reach of the battlefields. And for all of the relative darkness contained within those first five verses, the last one sheds a ray of hope, a stubborn optimism that brings the piece together in a very strong way, uniting an abstract peace with a terrible reality, and doing its best to open the reader’s eyes, just a little bit more, and in a slightly different way.

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  • Avatar becca says:

    how could have the poet’s culture affected the poem “the yellow palm”?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I don’t know much about Minhinnick, although having read up on his life I don’t see as his heritage would have had much of an impact on this poem. Although it is based on his personal experiences as he visited Baghdad.

  • Avatar lucy says:

    what are the feelings about conflic in the poem yellow palm thnx

    • Andrew Walker Andrew Walker says:

      That’s an oddly specific question. But, to sum it all up — conflict. Minhinnick wasn’t a fan of it.

      The ultimate feeling of the poem, in my own interpretation, is that conflict is an unnatural force such as it exists in the modern world. The author spends most of the poem juxtaposing images of peace with images of conflict, such as in a coffin containing a man who was poisoned in a chemical attack; the visual of a chemically burned man contrasts with the peace associated with a funeral. The sun is described as having no period of armistice; the cruise missile is “blessed;” the beggars thank the speaker by saluting as in a war; and the mosques and muezzins are filled with blood and despair. These images all take a natural, everyday occurrence, and turns it into a warlike metaphor. That kind of juxtaposition makes me think of conflict as something that does not belong, something that Munhinnick is intentionally using to corrupt otherwise beautiful images.

      If conflict was removed from the poem, it would be about a sunny day, giving to the poor, community prayer, and a beggar finding fruit. The war corrupts these images, makes them unnatural. To sum up once again, I would therefore say that Minhinnick views war as an unnatural force, and that the general “feel” of conflict in The Yellow Palm is that it is unnatural, that it corrupts, and that it has no place in the world today. This may be a slightly hyperbolic interpretation on my part — I don’t like conflict much either! — but I don’t think it’s too far off of what the author intended.

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