‘Olives,’ an interesting poem by A.E. Stallings, sets the tone and mood of her larger body of work by the same name. This poem describes the characteristics of the olives, especially their taste. The way she describes it by using gustatory imagery helps the reader to taste them in their imagination. Besides, Stallings compares it with her poetry. Though she is a modern poet, she loves to incorporate the classical forms in her poems. That’s why she compares her works to olives that are rather bitter to taste at first hand but taste sweet if cured with the poetic “brine” of Stallings.
‘Olives’ by A.E. Stallings describes how the olives taste like in different cases and why the speaker likes these “small bitter drupes.”
Stallings begins this poem by describing the taste of the olives. According to the speaker of this piece, people can eat them only if the fruits are pickled in salt. She presents a variety of images that points to how the fruits are eaten. Some prefer them having them wine or vodka. While some of us eat them the brined fruit with a toothpick or serving it with other dishes.
In the following stanzas, Stallings talks about their color and the emotions associated with their “humble hues”. Besides, she describes how the olives are harvested and the sunlight that packs them with the “treasuries of oil.” Lastly, she makes it clear that she likes the brined drupes which are “full of golden past.”
You can read the full poem here.
This poem consists of five stanzas and each stanza contains five lines. There is a set rhyme scheme. It is AABAB and this rhyme scheme is maintained throughout the stanzas. For example, in the first stanza, “sweet” rhymes with “eat” and “meat”. Whereas, “tears” and “spears” rhyme together. It means that in each stanza the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme together. The rest two lines end with similar rhyming words.
Stallings uses a specific meter scheme in this poem. The majority of the lines contain ten syllables and the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Therefore, the major meter of this piece is iambic pentameter. While Stallings also uses iambic trimeter in this poem and it can be found in the lines having six syllables (For example, the second line of the second stanza).
The poem begins with an alliteration. It is present in “craving comes”. In this phrase, the “k” consonant sound alliterates in the neighboring words. Another important device of this piece is enjambment. Readers can find this device in the first two lines. Stallings uses it throughout the piece of internally connecting the lines and maintaining the flow.
There is a metaphor in the phrase, “vat of tears”. It is a reference to the brine that is used to pickle olives. In the fourth line of the first stanza, “A rich and dark and indehiscent meat” readers can find that the conjunction “and” is used twice. This device is called polysyndeton.
The last two lines of the second stanza contain an antithesis. In the third stanza, the poet uses visual imagery to depict the color of olives.
The first four lines of the fourth stanza begin with a similar word. It is called anaphora. In this stanza, the phrase “The blue glass of heavens” contains a periphrasis. It is a reference to the sky.
Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
Clinging tightly to the pit—on spears
Stallings’ poem, ‘Olives’ begins interestingly. The poetic persona of this piece refers to the change of taste. According to her, sometimes people prefer to eat salty fruits like olives. The craving originates from the heart as people don’t like to have the “sweet” things all the time. It is interesting to note here that the poet uses the “olives” metaphorically. She is not referring to the fruits only but indirectly hints at her poems.
Stallings wrote several poems imitating the classical form in a modern context. That’s why she thinks that her poems are not “sweet” to modern readers. Her works are rather salty like olives and it is pickled with the vat of poet’s tears, a metaphorical reference to her heartfelt emotions.
In the last few lines, she presents an image of an olive. Its meat looks indehiscent. The “Indehiscent meat” means that the olive is ripe but not opened to release its seeds. It is clinging tightly to the sharp point of a toothpick looking like a piece of meat on spears.
Of toothpicks, maybe, drowned beneath a tide
Or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth—
The second stanza adds some more information to describe the olive that the poet is describing. She may be eating the olive and thinking about it in this manner. Whatsoever, the fruit she is having was drowned in vodka and vermouth. Vermouth is a type of wine.
In the first few lines, she presents another visual imagery. Here readers can visualize an olive that is in the speaker’s drink, enhancing the taste of the liquor. It is one of the ways of eating olives.
The following lines create a contrast. According to the speaker, the olive is rocking at the bottom of a wide, shallow, and long-stemmed glass. In this glass, the liquor is kept. This image gives the fruit a gentrified look. It tells readers how the rich have olive with their drinks.
In contrast, rustic people prefer it to have without liquor. They satiate themselves with its primary taste, not mingling it with any liquors. In these lines, Stallings is talking about her poems. Both rich and poor like her poetry. Like olives, everyone read her poems. The difference lies in their interpretation of her text. Though she uses the classical form, she does not imitate the classical mindset.
A miscellany of the humble hues
Washed down with swigs of barrel wine that stab
In the third stanza, Stallings specifically presents visual imagery of the olives. She describes their color as “A miscellany of the humble hues.” So, the hues of olives appear to the speaker as the color humbleness. Indeed, their color does not resemble that of sweet and delicious fruits. Still, they are nutritious. Above all, the poet likes them the most.
Moreover, the fruit has its eponymous colors, brownish-green and purplish brown. Some of them are tinged in black and blue. The hues represent the “slow chromatics of a bruise”. What does this metaphor mean? As the poet compares her poetry to olives, she is talking about the tone and mood of her works by referring to their colors. For example, the black olives metaphorically hint at her gloomy works. While the blues point at her works that have a certain depth and soothing tone.
In the last line, she describes how the olives are washed down with swigs of barrel wine and their taste. The last line is connected with the first line of the next stanza by the use of enjambment.
The palate with pine-sharpness. They recall
Daylight packed in treasuries of oil,
The olives that are pickled with wine have a different taste. When tested, they stab the palate with “pine-sharpness”. This adjective clarifies how the wine adds a different flavor to the olives. Besides, through this line, Stallings talks about her ironic works that are sharp like pines.
When she looks at an olive, it reminds her of the harvester’s toil. For their effort, she can have olives that are rich in taste. Likewise, her poems also reflect the toil she did to write each line. With days and nights of hard work, she can offer her thought-provoking poems to readers.
In the following lines, she talks about the collection of olives. The harvesters spread nets under the trees at night. During that time, the tree looks silvery for the moonlight. Readers can see this image in the fall when the olives are collected.
The daylight helps the olives to mature. Slowly, they produce oils that they store in their “treasuries”.
Paradigmatic summers that decline
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.
In the last stanza, Stallings’s poetic persona says how the fruit matures in summer. Like the singular “archaic nouns” that are not used in modern days, summer days decline. Throughout the summer, olives get nourishment and at the end of the season, they become ripe. Similarly, the scorching days in a writer’s life, helps them to become ripe in imagination and their thought process.
In the last three lines, Stallings proclaims no matter how readers react to her poetry, they are like her babies. They can be small and bitter but they have the “golden past”. It is a reference to the classical form she uses in her poems or it is a reference to her own past. Besides, the drupes are cured in “brine”.
If readers compare the olives to the poet’s thoughts, the “brine” becomes emotions. When both of them react, it gives birth to a beautiful poem, like her ‘Olives’.
A.E. Stallings, the poet of ‘Olives’, is a modern American poet and translator. This poem was published in Stallings’ poetry collection, “Olives”. It was published in 2012. She has published three more books of poetry, “Archaic Simile” (1999), “Hapax” (2006), and “Like” (2018). In A.E. Stallings’ poems, readers can find the usage of traditional forms and the ideas of New Formalism.
In a review of her “Olives”, Publishers Weekly stated,
When she unleashes her technical gifts upon poems in which she builds a new narrative instead of building upon an old one, Stallings achieves a restrained, stark poise that is threatening even by New Formalism standards.
In 2012, this book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in A.E. Stallings’ poem ‘Olives’.
- ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ by Pablo Neruda – This poem presents a pictorial description of a salad in the making to which readers can add more profound meanings culled from American culture. Explore the best love poems of Pablo Neruda and more Pablo Neruda poems.
- ‘Summer Past’ by John Gray – This poem describes a past summer that contained the elements much treasured by the speaker for their natural beauty. Read more poems of John Gray.
- ‘September Tomatoes’ by Karina Borowicz – This emotive poem describes the poet’s feelings for the dying tomato plants in autumn. Explore more Karina Borowicz poems.
- ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ by Mary Oliver – This poem is concerned with a black walnut tree that is close to the speaker. Read more Mary Oliver poems.