Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"The Almond Tree"

All the way to the hospital
The lights were green as peppermints.
Trees of black iron broke into leaf
ahead of me, as if
I were the lucky prince
in an enchanted wood
summoning summer with my whistle,
banishing winter with a nod.

Swung by the road from bend to bend,
I was aware that blood was running
down through the delta of my wrist
and under arches
of bright bone. Centuries,
continents it had crossed;
from an undisclosed beginning
spiralling to an unmapped end.


Crossing (at sixty) Magdalen Bridge
Let it be a son, a son, said
the man in the driving mirror,
Let it be a son. The tower
held up its hand: the college
bells shook their blessings on his head.


I parked in an almond's
shadow blossom, for the tree
was waving, waving at me
upstairs with a child's hands.


the spinal stair
and at the top
a bone-white corridor
the blood tide swung
me swung me to a room
whose walls shuddered
with the shuddering womb.
Under the sheet
wave after wave, wave
after wave beat
on the bone coast,
bringing ashore - whom?
minted, my bright farthing!
Coined by our love, stamped
With our images, how you
Enrich us! Both
you make one. Welcome
to your white sheet,
my best poem.


At seven-thirty
the visitors' bell
scissored the calm
of the corridors.
The doctor walked with
to the slicing doors.
His hand is upon my arm,
his voice - I have to tell
you - set another bell
beating in my head:
your son is a mongol
the doctor said.


How easily the word went in -
clean as a bullet
leaving no mark on the skin,
stopping the heart within it.

This was my first death.
The 'I ' ascending on a slow
Last thermal breath
studied the man below

as a pilot treading air might
the buckled shell of his plane -
boot, glove and helmet
feeling no pain

from the snapped wires' radiant ends.
Looking down from a thousand feet
I held four walls in the lens
of an eye; wall, window, the street

a torrent of windscreens, my own
car under its almond tree,
and the almond waving me down.
I wrestled against gravity,

but light was melting and the gulf
cracked open. Unfamiliar
the body of my late self
I carried to the car.


The hospital - its heavy freight
lashed down ship-shape ward over ward -
steamed into night with some on board
soon to be lost if the desperate

charts were known. Others would come
altered to land or find the land
altered. At their voyage's end
some would be added to, some

diminished. In a numbered cot
my son sailed from me; never to come
ashore into my kingdom
speaking my language. Better not

look that way. The almond tree
was beautiful in labour. Blood-
dark, quickening, bud after bud
split, flower after flower shook free.

On the darkening wind a pale
face floated. Out of reach. Only when
the buds, all the buds were broken
would the tree be in full sail.

In labour the tree was becoming
itself. I, too, rooted in earth
and ringed by darkness, from the death
of myself saw myself blossoming,

wrenched from the caul of my thirty
years' growing, fathered by my son,
unkindly in a kind season
by love shattered and set free.

Jon Stallworthy

A longer poem this time, and one that means a great deal to me. I was so moved by it that I learned it by heart and have carried it around in my head for over 30 years. I love it both for its emotional weight, and for the richness of its imagery.

It tells a story and one that any reader can relate to: a father rushes to the hospital for the birth of his son, and is told that the son has Down's Syndrome. Stallworthy calls it the most straightforwardly autobiographical of his poems.

Look at how the emotions shift from stanza to stanza. As the father drives to the hospital, there's a real sense of elation as he contemplates his son's birth and the passing on of new life down the generations. (I love the image of the blood running under arches of bone - a river of life, flowing from father to son across the ages.)

By the end of stanza 4 I'm all choked up when I reach this expression of love: "Welcome/to your white sheet,/my best poem." What more fitting tribute from a poet! (Stallworthy later said that the words were an unconcious echo of Ben Jonson's elegy, On My First Son):

But then there are the doctor's words to shatter his joy. "How easily the word went in -/clean as a bullet/leaving no mark on the skin,/stopping the heart within it." These words bring home the emotional impact of the news.

Isn't it just so true that at the moments of greatest trauma we feel distanced from our physical body, as if we are observing ourselves from a distance? Stallworthy compares himself to a pilot treading air after being ejected mid-air, and watching the wreck of everything from above. Part of him dies at that moment: "This was my first death".

In a sense too, there's a bereavement that he has to handle. The son of his hope and imagination is drifting away from him, to be replaced with someone who will never speak his language (in a metaphorical sense). But from that pain grows transformation and new awareness. And he realises that he'll learn a different lesson of love from his handicapped child.

Just as physical objects become invested with greater meaning at moments of emotional crisis. (We seem to notice things in much greater detail.) The blossoming almond tree outside the hospital seems complicit in everything.

I seldom reach the end of the poem with dry eyes. Stallworthy is as powerful a story-teller as any fiction writer.

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Anonymous Anna said...

Why poems are often bloody sad? Is it because most poets have a melancholy nature or is it because they take nourishment from the sap of life? This is a reaon I guess why poetry is not that popular. It gets people to be more sensitive to the realities of life while most of the time they are looking for an escape. Sad. Because I believe that once the truth has hit you, it enlarges your heart and expand your mind. Beautiful poem, by the way.

11:00 AM, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous barefoot said...

The experience of reading The Almond Tree again (I first read it about 10 years ago) - is as painful as my first read. Powerful use of imagery - the metaphors just breaks down every barrier that cocoons us from the daily painful tragedies that so many live with. It draws you in with no apologies -
only harsh realities. And still life goes on...

4:42 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Confession time: I am a bit lazy when it comes to reading long poems, but I do enjoy them just the same.

“The Almond Tree” is such a hauntingly beautiful poem, and indeed it is probably Stallworthy's "best" (as his son is), because of the depth of honesty and love reflected here. I really enjoy its rhythm, as it shifts from anticipation to wrenching grief... especially how it feels to have one’s world crumble and spin out of control (the words seem to fail at the point of the doctor’s revelation). The repetition of words helps build the rhythm of the poem…sometimes mirroring the beating heart of the father.

On a third reading, the collocation of words “bone”, “spinal” and “white” in the early parts of the poem are then seems to augur the death-like pain of the fathers, as well as a reference, perhaps to the weak bone structures/formations of his child with Down Syndrome and the deep emotional and physical connection the father feels with his son (bone of my bone).

I feel deeply touched by this poem (thanks so much, Sharon for sharing this with us – no alliteration intended), however I can’t seem to comprehend the use of the “farthing” in reference to the new born son…Besides “Enrich” and “stamped”, I think there maybe something I am missing here…and is “farthing” through its sound a ‘ring’ for ‘darling’? Could you guys give some suggestions to englihten me?

PS. Common, more comments, please

Anna, Barefoot, thx ever so much for your heartfelt tnoughts on this poem

9:37 PM, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous kyels said...

Sigh ... Why are poems often portrayed in a sad, melancholic way?

Is it better that way? To make the reader feel the impact of the words used or simply it's because of the poet's emotions while he or she was composing the poem?

10:07 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

anna, kyels - poems don't have to be sad at all ... just some of them happen to be and this is one ... the same can be said for films and songs and paintings ...

next time i'll find a poem to make you smile!

barefoot - yes, it is indeed a painful poem and i do think it refelects the experience of many people

dreamer idiot - yes, i worried about the length but then reasoned that it was not a difficult poem to understand ...

"farthing" is or rather was a british coin ... a quarter penny ... it stopped being currency before i was born but stallworthy would remember it fondly perhaps ... it was tiny and had a little wren (bird) on it ... so he's comapring his son to a newly minted tiny coin ...

"sharing ... sharon" you're a poet/ who doesn't know it

11:38 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger Spot said...

The initial crushing of hope is devastating, so much so that I missed the rebirth of a kindlier love at the end.

The line "my best poem" brings to my mind the innocent delight and hopefull expectation of someone putting on and being proud of his best clothes for a momentous occasion.

I love how the imagery gets increasingly visceral - blood was running down the delta...

spinal stair...bone-white...bone coast

scissored the calm...slicing doors

blood dark

My favourite parts are "centuries, continents it had crossed, from an undisclosed beginning, spiralling to an unmapped end" - I love how geneaology is depicted here.

I get an overpowering sense of blood calling to blood.

This is so sad, and yet so beautiful.

9:42 AM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Such a achingly beautiful words. Thanks for sharing Sharon.

6:56 PM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Spot, I enjoyed your comments. yes, I too failed to realise what an affirmative poem this is, despite its deep melancholy.

How beautiful it is also to embrace life (ugliness and all) and the love that makes everything worthwhile.

10:27 PM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger Sham said...

A very painful read...I have always thought poems reach out to you depending on which stage of life you are at....amazing considering the poet was scribing whatever was going on with him/her in this case the birth of his son and the angst that follows.

Folks, I have a poem I want to share - how do I go about it?

8:13 AM, March 30, 2006  
Blogger thewailer said...

like the stanzas and flow, a bit emotionally dreary yet captivatingly effective, lovely is the end-bit.

3:07 AM, April 04, 2006  
Anonymous Sophie said...

The poem ‘The Almond Tree’ tells of a personal experience – the birth of the poet’s son. The poet is ecstatic while he drives to the hospital, but the mood changes to threat when the doctor leads him through the hospital. This is followed by shock and disappointment when the poet discovers that his son has been born with Down’s syndrome. This mood is contrasted in part seven, where Stallworthy begins to accept his son’s condtition, and again in part eight, where the poet realises that due to his son’s illness he is more alive than he has ever been, and he is a better man because of it. These changes of mood are so important to the central idea because we see the mood going in a circular structure, from happiness to sadness, to optimism, to finally link back to the initial happiness, and this shows us the moral of the poem – that a mental disability ought not put your life on hold. It is not a depressing experience - it is, in fact, life enhancing.

The first mood, delight, is conveyed by Jon Stallworthy through imagery. This begins when the poet finds out that his wife has gone into labour. He describes himself as “the lucky prince / in an enchanted wood / summoning summer with my whistle, / banishing winter with a nod.” The simile used at this point resembles that of a fairytale, as if Stallworthy feels as though he is in Wonderland, or some kind of fantasy world. The phrase ‘summoning summer, banishing winter’ gives the idea that the poet feels extremely powerful, like he is on top of the world, with infinity within his grasp. He feels so powerful that it is as if he is some sort of God, who can control the seasons with one simple nod or whistle. Through this image, it is extremely easy to see how lucky the poet feels because he is going to be a father, due to the language and connotations of the words within this image.
Another way in which the poet conveys the mood of delight is the excitement he feels when his son is actually born. He compares his son to “my bright farthing! / Coined by our love, stamped with / our images”. This comparison between his newborn son and the farthing is very effective in demonstrating the mood of delight, as the farthing is a very precious coin, and quite rare. This implies that the poet feels his son is one of a kind, because he was made by his and his wife’s love, his “stamp”. We know that a stamp is always found on a coin, and the poet’s son is like a stamp or symbol of Stallworthy’s relationship with his wife.

The mood of excitement is noticeably transformed into a threatening mood as the doctor leads Stallworthy through the hospital. We can see this through word choice such as the doctor walking “with me / to the slicing doors. His hand upon my arm”. The word ‘slicing’ here has connotations of something unpleasant, such as slicing meat, cutting with scissors, or even the cutting of a child’s umbilical cord. As well as this, the fact that the doctor’s hand is on Stallworthy’s arm suggests that he is about to receive some bad news, adding to the threat of part five of The Almond Tree. This word choice is effective as it makes it deliberately obvious that something bad is about to happen.

The mood of threat carries on to become evident disbelief, when the doctor “set another bell / beating in my head: / your son is a mongol / the doctor said”. The rhyme of the words “head” and “said” in this phrase is extremely important, because it is the only part in the whole poem that contains rhyme. This makes it stand out because it is the father’s joy is coming to an abrupt end. The singsong language makes it seem as if the doctor is not sorry at all that Stallworthy’s son suffers from Down’s syndrome, and the rhyme suggests finality - The condition must be accepted, as there is no chance of going back to change anything. The speech in this verse has been written in italics, to make it stand out. This makes it seem like a big impact, linking on to the next mood of the poem – shock.

The mood of shock is represented by the words sinking in as “clean as a bullet / leaving no mark on the skin, / stopping the heart within it. // This was my first death.” The image “clean as a bullet” gives the impression of an enormous emotional impact. There is no blood, and there is nothing to see, but inside it is as if he has died. He feels as if he has been shot due to the speed, the shock, and the pain of these words. It is the death of his dreams – his happiness has been shattered as a bone would be shattered by a bullet.

Another image used to reveal the mood of shock is the comparison of Stallworthy to a pilot whose plane has exploded. It is as if he is floating, watching himself. He feels as if he is not there – that this is not really happening to him. It is almost like an outer body experience. He can feel no pain because all his emotions have died, and he cannot cope, even though the news has not suck in properly. However, we can see hope stemming from this image, in that he is still ascending. This is owing to the fact that despite his son’s disability, Stallworthy is still a father.

After the initial shock has died down, and Stallworthy has come back down to face reality, the mood of shock is replaced by disappointment. This is conveyed through the image of the son never being able “to come / ashore into my kingdom / speaking my language.” This image shows the real sense of disappointment that Stallworthy feels. We can tell from this quotation that Stallworthy is frustrated that he will never understand his son properly, and vice versa. He is disappointed that he will never get to participate in typical father-son activities, such as playing football in the garden, meeting his son’s new friends, taking his son for his first pint etc. This quotation effectively sums up the full disappointment felt by Stallworthy at the news that his son suffers from Down’s syndrome. However, this mood is once again changed in part eight of ‘The Almond Tree’.

The mood at the end of part seven is one that changes from disappointment to acceptance. We can see this because the father, “from the death / of myself saw myself blossoming”. This shows that he has come to terms with his son’s condition, and is learning every day. This is reinforced in part eight, where Stallworthy states that “I have learnt more from your lips / than you will from mine perhaps”. This is because Stallworthy’s son might not always understand what his father is saying to him, but Stallworthy is constantly learning how to be a better person. He has become more aware of illnesses, he is more accepting, and most importantly, he is able to see things through the eyes of his son – a completely different perspective.

“I have learnt that to live is to suffer, / to suffer is to live.” These last two lines are a very suitable summing up of the poem, as it makes us realise that the poet is no longer in shock, or even disappointed. He is once more happy, bringing in the importance of the circular pattern of mood changes within ‘The Almond Tree’. These two lines illustrate that without suffering, joy would be much less important, as pain is a guaranteed part of life. Through this, we can acknowledge that nothing should be taken for granted, and that it takes a lot of work to be truly happy. Jon Stallworthy has included these two lines to make us reflect back on the poem, and the different moods we have experienced while reading. We realise at the end why the mood changes throughout the poem are so important – because it shows us Stallworthy growing as an individual, and learning that not everything goes as planned, but that we can always adapt, and learn to cope, much like Stallworthy has through the course of ‘The Almond Tree’. In conclusion, I believe that Jon Stallworthy effectively conveyed the mood changes of ‘The Almond Tree’ through imagery, word choice, and rhythm, as through these techniques, we gather the central idea of the poem - that everyone can adapt to their situations, whether good or bad, even if it is something life-changing, such as having a son born with Down’s syndrome.

5:53 AM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Wow, Sophie, you floored me with your reading and analysis of the poem. Thanks for dropping by with your comments, and trust that you'll continue to enjoy poetry wherever you read them. Do drop by again, as you please. Cheers.

(I am writing on behalf of bibliobibuli who wrote this post, since she hasn't been able to switch to the new blogger. You might be interested to search for her blog on blogger. She's British but resident in Malaysia).

12:59 PM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude, it's just some fuckin' crackhead whose chatting bullshit and you've all beleived this bullcrap was chocolate ice cream

9:36 AM, September 24, 2007  
Anonymous Tabitha said...

No, what the hell?!
This poem is a monstrosity. I'm not even going to go into what's wrong with it because if it's not obvious to you what's wrong with this thing, I fear you're too far gone to ever see good poetry.

One more thing: "It tells a story and one that any reader can relate to: a father rushes to the hospital for the birth of his son, and is told that the son has Down's Syndrome"?
How can "anyone" relate to that? Not everyone has children, and not everyone that has had a child has had one with Downs. Not everyone is elated at the prospect of a child. Not everyone goes into an emoesque land of denial upon discovering their child is handicapped. Most people are disappointed, and sad, but learn to either cope with it and move on with life, or give their kid up for adoption so they can give it a better run at life.
Not every man gets taught an ever-so valuable life-lesson from producing a handicapped child. Thinking that they will get some sudden epiphany is a highly blinkered view of the situation he describes.

I apologise to anyone who idol-worships this man, but I personally think he is A) an utter imbecile and B) an awful poet. But really, guys, I don't know whether to feel sorry for you all or to be angry at you, seeing as if you think this is a good poem, you've clearly never been exposed to a decent poem in your life.

9:46 AM, September 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reference to "farthing" when describing his son is a good one. A farthing is a tiny old coin, worth less than a penny. It represents how small and insignifigant his son is.
I dont think this poem is depressing, but uplifting.
I think he is selfish at the beginning, focusing on himself, "my best poem". He focuses on how things reflect on him, and has led a charmed life. The poem shows how he grows and changes like the almond tree. By accepting life isnt perfect and doesnt always turn out how you plan it, you can deal with things and get the best out of life, "to live is to suffer, to suffer is to live".
p.s. just because you dont have a Down's Syndrome child doesnt mean you cant get meaning out of the poem regardless-the point of poetry.

12:41 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Joanney said...

I really love this poem.

Sad I know, but the total honesty is incredible. The complete change in his feelings towards the baby from the sheer excitement of becoming a father for the first time to actually being willing to abandon his only son because he has Down's Syndrome is harrowingly honest, but I appreciate that the poet could be so open.

When the poet realises how self-centred he had been and returned to his son, I felt a huge sense of joyous relief. But that isn't the most important part of his awakening. The fact that his blossoming was under a blossoming almond tree is extremely symbolic. For centuries, the almond tree has been seen as a symbol of awakening and hope. Also, when an almond tree blossoms it is abrupt and painful, much like the poet's own blossoming. He had to go through the pain of bluntly being told of his son's illness by an unprofessional doctor to see his selfishness and become a better person.

This is an interesting view on life, one which I fully agree with. To become a better person you have to be able to get through the hard times that you have to face. And that's why I love the poem so much. It gives the reader a sense of hope, knowing that the difficulties that they have to face are making them a better person in the long run.

3:30 AM, April 26, 2008  
Anonymous Richard said...

Here's the missing final stanza, which Stallworthy later felt made too obviously explicit what was better left implied. Rather like the final omitted verse of Procol Harum's WSofP or the 'lost' last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock. But many people find it incredibly powerful.

You turn to the window for the first time.
I am called to the cot
to see your focus shift,
take tendril-hold on a shaft
of sun, explore its dusty surface, climb
to an eye you cannot

meet. You have a sickness they cannot heal
the doctors say: locked in
your body you will remain.
Well, I have been locked in mine.
We will tunnel each other out. You seal
the covenant with a grin.

In the days we have known one another,
my little mongol love,
I have learnt more from your lips
than you will from mine perhaps:
I have learnt that to live is to suffer,
To suffer is to live.

5:00 AM, May 26, 2008  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

richard - i thought i remembered these lines ... must have come to this poem through the earlier version. thanks very much.

1:43 PM, May 31, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

currently writing an essay about how stallworthy uses imagery to convey emotion - such a sad, yet beautiful peom

3:17 AM, November 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous statement Tabitha has made. This poem isn't aimed purely at young men who have fathered a handi-capped child. It expresses the changing series of emotions we experience during fatherhood, which is exemplified by his child having a handicap, maturing as an individual and adapting to life changing situations. Significantly it conveys that we cannot live a rich full life without first experiencing some pain first - this is something everyone can relate to.
I do not "idolise" Stallworthy but I can appreciate the deep emotional impact and beauty of this poem.

4:15 AM, December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Helen said...

Richard thanks so much for providing the final stanza i couldn't find it anywhere. As an ageing midwife i remember first reading this poem as a teenager, over 35 years ago and have never forgotten how beautifully poignant it was. I realise that the terminology for Downs syndrome that he uses is very non PC but the sentiment is still so powerful and for me the image of his young son sealing the covenant with a grin emphasises their growing love for each other.

9:13 AM, January 16, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard this poem for the first time yesterday on poetry please last night as I drove to collect my two youngest children , both have Down syndrome , after a weekend with their father , they are not sick nor suffering , they are emotionally intelligent , gentle and the kindest people I have ever met , they are of course different from each other as chalk is to cheese , I refer to them as the guru and the prophet ,
The poem perfectly expressed the sweeping flood of emotion and 'death. ' of our perceptions and naive beliefs .
The iuse of farthing , I loved , both as an endearment , and I read it as far - thing , which was familiar to me particularly with my son , he seemed so far away and distant ,quiet and self contained that i myself wrote a poem about his inhabiting a spun off planet that I would strive to learn to breathe in also, my children are my flesh and blood my continuation ,I have 5 and they are the treasure of life , I salute Jon Stallworthy for this piece .

4:59 PM, May 27, 2013  

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