… because we’ve lately been told that the Mediterranean diet is the only way to go, let us note that poets have long been swigging olives and their oil and the trees that hold the olives, and there must be a reason for this olive-love on the part of so many poets. The most recent of poetic olivephiles, A.E. Stallings (read UD‘s appreciation of a poem of hers here), has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize, and the name of the nominated book is … Olives.


A quick read of a bunch of poems featuring things olive confirms that poets like the olivesque because… Well, let’s go to the tape! Let’s do five olive poems! I bet we’ll discover that all poets – at least all the poets on our list — i.e., Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Karl Shapiro, Rachel Hadas, A.E. Stallings — like the same stuff about olives.

Pour la première, M. Wilbur, “Grasse: The Olive Trees.” (Go here for the complete poem.) So the poet’s in the south of France, marveling at the incredible lushness – almost to excess – of natural bounty there:

… the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

… The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

But no – not everything around the poet is like that:

… olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.

And why? Well, they look different, for one thing, all gray and gnarly and oldish and “anxious,” says the poet, in their thin arthritic presence.

What’s their problem? Their problem is that they’re at odds with their lush relaxed just let the rain drip all over me and the sun warm me up setting; they don’t trust the natural generosity of the cosmos; or, rather, they – like Kafka’s Hunger Artist – know that no matter how generous the universe, the lives it gives us are finite and difficult, and we will always be hungry and thirsty, wanting more joy, and more life. The olive is

a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

So the olive is there to remind us that even in our most famous paradises – here, the south of France – the reality of life and death pertains: Our lives are treacherous, we’re barely getting by, and we grow unearthly pale, asking of existence compensations and fulfillments that will never occur. This is earth, not paradise, says the olive tree, and this is an important message, worth the poet’s notice…

Just so in James Merrill, the olive features in a poem about the frustration of being mortal, of having too little time to overcome one’s convoluted beginnings and break through to the elemental paradisal person one wishes to be (see Philip Larkin’s Aubade: “An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never…”). In “After Greece,” Merrill describes coming back to the States, back to his personal history, back to the story that made him and that he’ll never – however many times he leaves for Greece – escape. It’s an earnest New Englandy sort of inheritance – Christian, or maybe if not Christian at least animated by “Art, Public Spirit…” But Merrill wants neither of these – neither the moral piety of the religious life, nor the moral piety of the post-religious public spirited life. He wants essentials:

how I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light…

The poet is – in Wilbur’s words about the olive tree – “rooted hunger wrung.” His hunger for essentials has him calling out to the olives, begging their sun-laden natural fulfillment for himself; but “I have scarcely named you” when instead of that idealized earthy plentitude, what materializes is the gradually killing radiance of the Greek sun, turning things “unearthly pale.”

Shapiro? Same old same old.

The fruit is hard,
Multitudinous, acid, tight on the stem;
The leaves ride boat-like in the brimming sun,
Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes.

Now on the lawn
The olives fall by thousands, and I delight
To shed my tennis shoes and walk on them,
Pressing them coldly into the deep grass,
In love and reverence for the total loss.

All attributes, multitudinous, holding on to life tightly; and yet the olive is going to fall to the ground, pregnant with nothing, and the poet celebrates this reverent opportunity the fall gives him to press his feet into the “cold pastoral” grave of his own abundant nothingness.

Next up, Rachel Hadas, who just says it:

Ideas of the eternal,

once molten, harden; cool.
Oil, oil in the lock.

The door to her country house gets old and stiff and hard to open, so she softens it with olive oil to make it young again. But as she gets older ideas of infinitely available regeneration “harden; cool.”

oil in the lock; the key
dipped in lubricity
the boychild’s shining skin
me tired to the bone

And finally Stallings herself – perhaps the most evolved of the poets – finds in the olive a rich equivalent to her acceptance of limitation, her understanding that to be always hungry is not the ideal human outcome. Of the poets, she’s the only one who claims the olive:

These fruits are mine –
Small bitter drupes
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.

That is, Stallings seems to have arrived at the proper attitude to take toward the olive. Not morbid, like Shapiro, or somewhat puling like Merrill. Not somewhat hectoring or lecturing, like Wilbur, who concludes a bit too authoritatively with his reminder to us; and not meanderingly wistful like Hadas (I mean, they’re all fine poems; I just think Stallings is the best). But rather with a toughed-up wisdom, and even a joy based on that difficult knowledge.

Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet…

for the truth, the bitter truth, that is, and the olive contains it. Its gradually darkening skin “charts the slow chromatics of a bruise,” the gradual process, also chronicled in the Hadas poem, of one’s recognition of mortality. The olive is

Daylight packed in treasuries of oil

Paradigmatic summers that decline
Like singular archaic nouns, the troops
Of hours in retreat.

So learn to love that fact of decline and retreat, that singular fast-becoming-archaic thing which is you, packed tightly with your daylight memories into the skin of an indehiscent mind, a mind strong enough not to split when it arrives at maturity.

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