Olive Trees

Poem by Robert Fagles

Selection from I, Vincent, Poems from the Pictures of van Gogh (1978)

I’ve worked in the olive grove this month.
Gauguin, Bernard, it’s they who have maddened me
with their Christs in the Garden of Olives.
Flat allegories. Nothing really observed
a dream, a nightmare, medieval tapestry.
Gives me the feeling of collapse, not progress.
Not to dream but to think, look closely;
that should be the assignment.
                                                                   To shake them off
I knock about in the orchards, days and nights,
clear days and cool, crisp nights
at the end of summer, start of fall…
the wind in the olives rustles many secrets;
they are immensely old.
(These brief studies, I hope,
make up at least an attack on the problem.)
              Under the olive leaves the silver
                            livid silver
              lifts in the wind and stirs to green,
              over the ochre soil I try to reach them—
                            there are times they lead me on,
              I work myself into silver, straight into gold
              with the fresh shoots, ancient, ever-new
              these trees
                            the revery and the restlessness
                                          a hiss of misgiving in the wind
                                                        the roots of a lost affection
              the grip of old betrayals in the grain.
Am I mad or sane? A little of both, I hope.
I feel like a woodsman.
The long clean cuts of my lines
deliberate, stark as the old woodcuts,
distorted only to throw the olives in relief—
Up from the churning earth the bole and roots
heave upward, all is a struggling upward always
Ramifying into the air the branches burl and writhe
so light aloft in the sky against the blue—
those mountains, weren’t they blue?
Then make them blue, that’s all
And heart-deep in the trees at end of summer
I can feel them sing, the cicadas singing
the shrill of the anguish rising
                                                                      a long dying fall
the cicadas shimmering through the ancient green
And I like a green olive tree in the house of God