Flight and Method – Rhian Gallagher’s The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree

From trunk into the part between
two large limbs, you climbed.
Sometimes wrapped your legs around,
dangled, head mid-air –
turned the world upside down.
Fingered leaves made a screen,
birds housed in the choir stall timber.
Quietly, the walnuts rusted.
And all the method that it took, feeling
bough to bough through your bare foot.
Till far from adult lines of sight,
slowly growing as the limbs of tree,
the start of flight. Elsewhere worked
into view and the living wood held you.

– Rhian Gallagher

from Shift (Auckland University Press, 2011).

Of all the poems in Rhian Gallagher’s award winning second collection, Shift, this is the one that captivates me most. Structurally it’s a sonnet, with the volta taking place in the English position – just before the final two lines. (Although you could also argue it’s an Italian volta – moving from eight lines of description to the final six of reflection, signaled by the And.) It disguises itself a little by having three stanzas, of five, three and six lines respectively, and by loosening up the rhyme scheme. It slips into slant rhymes between some lines – around with down, two lines later; and between rhyming fully with screen and then slant into the final stanza with feeling and tree. But most of the slant rhymes are from end words into the middle of lines – climbed being echoed by lines, sight, and flight, mid-air with the much later elsewhere. Rhyme (especially assonance) forms a web of sound-linkage that holds the poem together without being overt.

The lines are quite short – 8, 5, 7, 5, 6, // 6, 8, 8, // 10, 7, 8, 9, 7 and 10 syllables respectively. And it’s worth counting them, because they relate directly to the content. The first stanza is the poem’s ‘I’ climbing the tree (and life). Full of spurts and bursts of effort. The second stanza is more about waiting and watching, so after the initial surge the lines mark time, quietly. The final stanza is all about growing up, growing older, moving away and into the world, so it begins by stretching out into the longest line of the poem, and pulses from there. The changes of adolescence, structurally as well as thematically.

Another structural aspect to notice is how Gallagher uses sentences and linebreaks. Nearly every sentence coincides with the end of a line, and all but three of the lines are end-stopped. Despite the  unruliness of the child’s progression, this is a story told by an adult, so things move forward in measured amounts, under control. The three enjambed words are important ones –  between, feeling and worked. The poem is all about being ‘in between’ – adult and child, earth and sky, freedom and control. And how that state feels – the world turned upside down; change as slow and inexorable as the growth of a tree; the conflict between the desire to stay, to be held, to remain a child, and the desire for freedom, for flight. How alien and strange the world of adults seems to a child, who can only try to ‘feel’ their way into it. And the last crucial concept – ‘work’. The thing that adults do, while children play. But also ‘worked’ in the sense of ‘moulded, made’, and the related idea of gradually making your way into something or through something. And again, the idea of solving a puzzle, of ‘working away’ at something.

All but one of the sentences span two lines, which makes line 8 quite noticeable. “Quietly, the walnuts rusted.” A strange image – logically, although walnuts can go mouldy, they don’t actually ‘rust’. But that’s not the point here. The saying is that ‘rust never sleeps’. It’s a process of decay that implies both the passage of time and an absence of movement, of use. The message here is that to remain would be to dwindle and decline and never achieve the things your life promised. Easier, yes. But a waste. So a line that suggests the quiet desperation of the child on the cusp of adolescence – the absolute need for her to change, to grow, and to leave – is presented as a single, quiet sentence.

There are some slightly strange bits of grammar and syntax. The first is the inversion of the first line, with it’s super-delayed verb: “From trunk into the part between / two large limbs, you climbed.” It reminds me of the beginning of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, with its inverted clause (“I think I know” coming after rather than before the statement of what it is that he thinks he knows). The effect here is to throw the emphasis on to that first word – “From”. The whole poem is a series of surges away from the state of childhood, so it begins with a muscular contortion and then opens out into the freedom of “you climbed”. Phrased the more usual way (“You climbed into the part between / trunk and two large limbs”), the poem would feel more claustrophobic, more constrained. A movement that finishes at a definite point. But this tree is more than just a tree, and this act of climbing is much more than a child’s summer pastime. So phrased in this slightly odd way, we hear the child’s movement stop and start, and focus on both of the crucial words – “From” and “climbed”. Another oddity about these two lines is that there’s no article before the first noun – it’s “trunk”, rather than “the trunk”. A similar elision occurs in line 3, where you might expect an “it” after “around”. But in both cases it fits with the stop/start mood, as well as giving you some ambiguity about the words – “trunk” as torso as well as stem, and what exactly are the legs wrapped around? (Trunk, this branch, any branch, every branch, nothing?) It makes the tree come alive a little, seem almost like an indulgent adult. (A personification that is echoed later, in line 6 “fingered leaves”; and with the omission of another “the”, this time in line 12, before “tree”.) Yes, the logical meanings are almost certainly the right ones, but how nifty to have these other suggestions evoked, all by omitting little insignificant words!

A child, climbing a tree. Freedom, safety (of sorts), autonomy. So the rhythm of the initial lines is erratic. Then things settle down a bit, with 5 and 6 sharing the exact same metrical pattern (and 7 and 8 only differing by one stress), as the child settles into the tree to peer down into the world of the adults. Reinforcing the rhythmic parallels is some beautiful, subtle rhyme – 5 and 6 having separate internal rhymes (turned and world, leaves and screen), and 7 and 8 cross-rhyming (choir stall and quietly). Then the child begins to grow up – stretching into an adult self, but still not sure, not certain, not comfortable. The rhythm matches it, restless, not settling to a pattern. Except for one line – line 11, “Till far from adult lines of sight,” which gives us the poem’s only line of perfectly regular meter: classic iambic tetrameter, as though the mere mention of adult supervision is enough to (momentarily) quash the lines’ rhythmic boisterousness.

So the child grows into a woman, and goes away – “the start of flight” only being possible because of the solidity, the stability of this foundation. Which makes the last line so astonishing – we’ve been working up to departure, only to be “held”, and by “the living wood”. What “living wood” is this, and why does it hold her? How can it be a poem about freedom and departure, when it ends with the speaker being “held” by “the living wood”? Every reader will find their own way of coming to terms with this ending. For me, the obvious “living wood” is the tree that has been in the background all the way through – the “family tree”. Heritage, ancestry, whanau. Belonging. But I’d go further. Our gaze, which has been outwards and “elsewhere” is suddenly and dizzily pulled back to the now, the child in the tree. More than anything else, this reminds me of the moment when I realised that my parents had grown older, and weren’t some universal constant. And the way that it made me suddenly really understand myself as a being in time, someone who was rushing into the future whether I liked it or not, and that everyone and everything else around me was doing exactly the same. Dizzying. Another poem that comes to mind here is Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – that glorious, spellbound last few lines, where he likens the experience to Cortez and his men suddenly seeing how much more there was to the world than they had ever believed possible. Moments when the world seems to rush away in all directions, and you become paradoxically aware of whatever it is around you that is reassuringly solid. Cortez had his men, Keats could close the book. And for a girl on the cusp of adolescence, there is the feel of something solid beneath her feet and hands – the walnut tree, and her family. The “living wood” that “held you”.