Taking Apart: “The Municipal Gum”

After reading “Australia, 1970” I wanted to find more Australia-themed poetry, and a coincidental Google search shows that the English first spotted it 246 years ago today, so that seemed like a sign, and I went and found poetry by Oodgeroo Noonucall, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. I was particularly drawn to “Municipal Gum,” which was published in 1966 and is as follows:

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest halls
And wild bird calls
Here you seems to me
Like that poor cart-horse
Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,
Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,
Whose hung head and listless mien express
Its hopelessness.
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen–
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?

“Municipal Gum” deals with the out of place-ness of a gum tree in the middle of an urban environment, and that same dislocation in the poem’s speaker, who links themselves to the tree by calling the two of them “us” and addressing it as a “fellow citizen,” and that feeling is heightened significantly by the irregularity of the poem’s rhyme scheme and meter. The piece uses a rhyme scheme – AABCCBBDEEFFGGHHG – that switches once the rhyming pattern becomes expected, reintroduces rhymes from earlier in the poem, makes frequent use of near-rhymes, and at one point includes a line that rhymes with no other line in the poem, all of which coalesces so that they create an uncertain, confused tone within the poem. There is an equally offputting quality about the way that the sudden switches in meter occur – a line like “Municipal gum, it is dolorous” might be expected to be followed by a line of the same length and meter, but it is immediately succeeded by “To see you thus,” which is much shorter and uses a different meter – at the same time that it breaks a pattern, though, the poem rhymes, continuing to bolster a sense of uncomfortable continuity in the piece. Speech sounds also act as an extension of this poem’s tone, with guttural noises and consonance denoting negative elements in the poem – the section of the poem that compares the gumtree to an abused draft animal especially makes use of these techniques: Like that poor cart-horse / Castrated, broken, a thing wronged, / Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged.” The ideal world, the “cool world of leafy forest halls,” on the other hand makes more use of assonance and uses  softer and less contrasting consonants than appear in other parts of the poem. The use of sound in “Municipal Gum” seems to me like a good example of a poem conveying equal amount of emotion through form as through content, which, coupled with a physically short poem, makes this piece resonant without having to speak for long at all.

One Reply to “Taking Apart: “The Municipal Gum””

  1. Noah,
    This poem is sonically gorgeous. The repetition of sounds is so rich and lilting, I feel as if it could be put into song. I really liked how you talked about the feeling of dislocation in this poem, because at the same time I felt a kind of kinship between the speaker and the tree, because both were in similar situations. The poem feels distinctly modern, even thought it was written in the 1920’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had produced it in recent years rather than about 100 years ago.

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