TEARING DOWN THE TULIP TREE
A POEM ABOUT CONFLICT

I was listening to a podcast the other day (‘Poetry Unbound’) featuring Padraig Ó’Tuama, the Irish poet and theologian discussing a poem called ‘One Tree’ by the Lebanese-American poet, Philip Metres. I love this poem because it is about conflict, conflict in everyday life – something we all have to deal with.
          Like most people (and the man in this poem), I hate conflict and will do anything I can to avoid it. And yet confronting conflict is an essential life skill. I know from my time in Northern Ireland (where the Cork-born, Catholic-raised Ó’Tuama was director of the Presbyterian-founded Corrymeela Community for several years) that conflict is neither good nor bad, but intrinsic in every relationship from marriage to international diplomacy. Conflict is something that has to be handled, managed and mediated - not solved. Metres and Ó’Tuama believe love is the essential element in this process.
          Here is the poem:
They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbours, last year.
It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard.
We said no.
Now they've hired someone to chainsaw an arm - the crux on our side of the fence – and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the carnage, mid-limb.
It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide.
She recites her litany of no, returns.
Minutes later the neighbours emerge.
The worker points to our unblinded window.
I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young daughters now alone.
I want no trouble.
Must I fight for my wife’s desire for yellow blooms when my neighbours’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade?
Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.
Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give.
Dear neighbour, it’s not me.
Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.

Ó'Tuama comments: “I love this poem because it feels like two parts of my world have come together. I think the interests in my whole life have always been religion, conflict, and poetry. And, where preferable, I like poetry about conflict and religion. And this poem is so brilliant, in terms of how it describes the escalation of conflict. All my training, initially, in conflict mediation, was about mediating neighbour-to-neighbour conflicts, because that’s such an intimate place, where a person finds their home. And it can be about a fence, it can be about a tree going over a fence, it can be about noise, it can be about a dog, it can be about your kids; it can be about so much, but neighbour-neighbour conflicts are really, really tense and intimate. And what seems simple sometimes goes very, very deep...
          “So the brilliant thing about this poem is that it isn’t just side A and side B. It’s not just, this household thinks this way, and the other household thinks the other way, about this particular tree. His wife “in tousled hair and morning sweats, marches to stop the carnage mid-limb.” She is so clear what she thinks. She’s magnificent...
          “But he just wants to hide. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with this feeling that his wife has about the memories that she associates from her childhood with this particular tree in the backyard. And he isn’t helping her; he isn’t necessarily taking the side of the neighbours either. He seems to feel in between, perhaps literally on the fence.
          “Why this poem is so brilliant is that it’s frustrating. It leaves you without knowing what’s going to happen. I think of that classic form of biblical short story called a parable. A parable, typically, is a short story that doesn’t come to an easy ending, a short story that leaves all kinds of tendrils at the end, and you’re thinking: ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ It’s an irritant. It’s meant to get under your skin and cause you to think in the moment, rather than something that says, “Here’s how you live your life,” in a nice, neat package. And this poem is a parable in the truest sense of the word, in that it gets under the skin. You feel these caricatures coming towards you: the worker, the neighbours, the spouse, the poet, the children; the history that somebody has invested into a tree; the future that somebody’s invested into the possibilities of tomatoes growing...
          “The setting for this poem is land, just the small amounts of land of two neighbours next door to each other. But that, as a metaphor, is really part of the area that Philip Metres as a poet is profoundly interested in. The book from which this poem is taken, Shrapnel Maps, puts forward poems that involve Israel and Palestine, in a way where he isn’t pretending that there’s a neutral middle, but that he is imagining that, coming from one particular point of view, he can hold a standard of integrity up to himself, where he isn’t caricaturing people who might be perceived to be on the other side...
          “And that, I think, is so brave, because as soon as he speaks about land, I think of Ireland. I think of Cyprus. I think of Israel and Palestine. I think of so many places around the world where there’s a border put down like a big fence, and people are trying to figure out, what does it mean to live near that fence right now? Where I am now, in County Fermanagh, I’m half a mile from the border with County Donegal. And for the last hundred years, these have been considered in two different jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I don’t like those classifications, but that border has been powerful, whether I like it or not. And I look at that border every time I pass it, and I find myself constantly thinking about how somebody’s imagination about a line on a map has done so much over the last hundred years. And so this poem brings out the fact that conflicts will go so deep ... and that a deep amount of collaboration — and trust and imagination and creativity — are needed to imagine something in the future, where cohabiting side-by-side, in land that borders each other or in land that’s shared, can be something that’s fruitful for all...
          “The poem, while frustrating us, has this line: “Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” And those three words, beginning with “L” — land, light, love — there’s the imagination that we can expand... Can we increase light? I suppose we can, artificially. But the thing that we can do something about is this word “love.” What does it mean to imagine that there might be love between people who are fighting about a tree?
          “Love is one of the most difficult things to do in human community, but yet, in politics and conflict resolution, love is often left out of the conversation because it seems either airy-fairy or impossible. And I like the imagination that the poet has here, to point out that there does need to be a practice of love in the context of this small conflict between two neighbours.
          “What does love look like, and not just between neighbour A and neighbour B: what does love look like in a household that suddenly seems like it’s ripped apart, between one spouse who wants to go out and defend the tree, another spouse who wants to hide in a corner? What’s love going to look like there? And in the midst of all this, you’re still left within the present moment about how, no matter what the past is, do we speak to each other now?”

Andy Pollak
Dublin Unitarian Church


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