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Grasse: The Olive Trees

May 1, 2017

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light
Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool
And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright
From too much wealth of water, so that the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And twisted trunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, 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.

–Richard Wilbur, 1948


Grasse is a commune in the south of France, just north of Cannes, which Wilbur likely visited when he was part of the force that liberated western Europe in World War II. Half quaint, half lavish (Grasse is known for its perfume factories), the commune features wild and cultivated olives, which, as anyone who’s seen them knows, are a gnarled, twisted, bitter-looking tree.

One of the themes that recurs in Wilbur’s poetry is the extent to the physical world is rich, intricate, and intoxicating, yet, at the same time, not enough. There’s always, mixed in with the “jammed excess,” a hint of something missing, a slight uncertainty, a pang or imperfection. The Grasse he paints is vivid and scenic–those rain-pocked stones, those flower smells, those statues–but the sweet excess is contradicted by the gaunt, famished, somber olives. More than botanical fact, their “great thirst” stands for the way the mind (spirit/soul) yearns for luxury but is never fully slaked by it–a paradox that hints that what it thirsts for isn’t in the the physical realm.


From → Nature, Uncategorized

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