The Olive by Harlow Clark

This Tree is light to the world.
The fruit of its fruit light to the mind
Fire to the lamp, calm to troubled waters.
The fruit bears its fruit by being crushed:
Salt well in a stone box
Add purgatives–vinegar is good
Let sit.
Crush between two grinding stones driven by a mule
Kissed by a whip
Till the skins break
Repeat to the lees, then burn the mash on a torch.
If the oil enlightens your soul
You will see the beaten traveller
There, by the side of the road, as you head down to Jericho
Pour it on his broken skin.

This man, light of endless worlds,
Praying near the trunk
Feels the branches enfolding him,
Folding him in–kneading, pressing
Till the skin breaks and it is not oil
Which will spill on ground that will shake tomorrow
Like waves tossing the boat
His nearby friends dream they are sleeping in–unaware
A friend will whip him with a kiss
Enemies whip nails through his palms and wrists
And spear him up a sponge of vinegar through his ribs.

After the healing has all flowed out
Layer him in linen
Salt him away in a stone room
Post sentinels to guard the rock that guards the room
That guards the shroud that keeps the dead
Dead–till the earth rolls the death stone like a boat
Tossed in stormy dreams and the empty cloths fold themselves
And Mary hears her name spoken
Not by the gardner.

But first, now, the tree draws him closer, tighter
Glowing in the approaching torchlight
As if dripping oil.


To read Harlow’s bio and other entry, go here.

*Competition entry*


8 thoughts on “The Olive by Harlow Clark”

  1. Love the texture of this poem, and the smooth glide from meaning-drenched story to meaning-drenched story, making them all one, multifaceted story. Quite stirring.


  2. Patricia, thanks for your comment. You have a gift for the disquieting, troubling observation, like the angel who came and troubled the pool at Bethsaida.

    Mark, thanks. I was thinking about the interconnections and it occurred to me that in Gethsemane all the imagery, all the stories, come together. I wrote The Olive about 22 years ago after mulling Truman Madsen’s The Olive Press ( &query=truman+madsen+olive) for a couple of years. The interconnections may have come from the mulling.


  3. Wonderful. Some very dramatic, stirring images in there. And the comparison to olive pressing is one that helps me see the poetry of Isaiah in a slightly clearer light.


  4. Patricia, most gifts are curses. Consider the servant Job, how even Shlomo in all his glory was not so woefully arrayed. As you know, I’m fascinated by the connection between blessing and curse. I remember in a college German class reading part of a play in which the heroine shouts out “Gift! Gift!” when she realizes she’s just been poisoned. Our teacher (Allen Keele or Marvin Folsom) explained that gift took on the meaning of poison because giving someone a gift of poisoned food was at one time a common form of murder.

    I’m also fascinated that the French verb blesser does not mean “to bless,” but “to wound.” The bless/wound connection is very old. When I was editing poetry for The Eerie Ant Hum Michael Collings sent me “*Blothisojan” (blet-see-yawn), the * indicating that it is a reconstruction of a hypothetical Indo-European word, a word connoting blood sacrifice, ancestor of blessing.

    Louis Owens implicitly challenges the idea that living a mythic life involves blood sacrifice in his novel Bone Game, in which a serial killer has been dismembering women apparently because he believes ritual murder is the key to living a mythic life.

    Cole McCurtain, a Cherokee-Choctaw-Irish English teacher teaching a class on Native American myth tells his students that most people don’t understand what it means to lead a mythic life, that it has nothing to do with violence.

    Together with The Sharpest Sight, an earlier novel about a young Cole searching for his murdered brother’s bones, Bone Game has deep affinities with The Pictograph Murders, which I’ve begun exploring on my Pinterest page ( and hope to develop into a longer article.


  5. Shirley, Thanks for your comment. I love making connections. They give my writing pungency since the pun is mightier than the s-word. If the spirit of Harpo is on most young comedians and comic actors, the spirit of Groucho is upon me. And I fear there is the same self-indulgence in my work as in the work of my Marxist mentors.

    Sarah, Thanks for mentioning Isaiah. I’ve just been reading the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 21 in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. The commentator points out that Jesus is reworking the parable in Isaiah 5, and every time I read Isaiah 5 I’m struck by how much it resembles Jacob 5, Zenos’s allegory of the tame and wild olive trees, and I always wonder whether Zenos was a contemporary of Isaiah, a predecesor, or a follower, a contemporary of Lehi, perhaps.


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