This month I wish to feature a poem inspired by an olive tree, written by local poet Mark O’Connor while sojourning in Italy. It’s in English, but I’ve chosen it not only because of its strong connection to Italy but also because it has been beautifully translated into Italian by poet Paolo Totaro, one of Mark’s friends.
Totaro was born in Naples in 1933 and lives in Sydney. In Italy he graduated in Music (piano) and Law then went to work for FIAT International and this position brought him to Australia in 1963. In 1975 he joined the Australia Council as the first Director of Community Arts, and in 1977 he was appointed as the Founding Chairman of the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission. He later became a presenter on SBS TV, and forged a close association with the Sydney academic world. Totaro has written poetry most of his life, and is blessed with the ability to write it in either language.
The Olive Tree (Mark O’Connor)
Nobody knows how long it takes to kill an olive.
Drought, axe, fire, are admitted failures. Hack one down,
grub out a ton of mainroot for fuel, and next spring
every side-root sends up shoots. A great frost
can leave the trees leafless for years; they revive.
Invading armies will fell them. They return
through the burnt-out ribs of siege machines.
Only the patient goat, nibbling his way down the ages,
has malice to master the olive. Sometimes, they say,
a man finds a dead orchard, fired and goat-
cropped centuries back. He settles and fences;
the stumps revive. His grandchildren’s family prosper
by the arduous oil-pressing trade. The wars
and disease wash over. Goats return. The olives
go under, waiting another age.
Their shade still lies where Socrates disputed.
Gethsemane’s withered groves are bearing yet.
L’albero di ulivo (translation by Paolo Totaro)
Chissà quanto ci vuole a uccidere un ulivo.
Siccità ascia fuoco, diciamolo, non vanno. Fanne a pezzi uno;
dei radicioni fanne legna a sacchi; a primavera
le radicette figliano germogli. Un grande gelo
può lasciar spogli gli alberi per anni: rinverdiscono.
Eserciti invasori possono stroncarli: riaffiorano,
fra le costole bruciate di macchine d’assedio.
Solo il capro paziente, che passa i secoli a brucare,
ha la malizia che occorre a sottomettere l’ulivo. Un viandante
trova un orto bruciato dal tempo, strubbiato dai capri. Si ferma
e lo recinge: ogni sterpo rivive. E i figli, e i figli ancora, prosperano
dell’ardua arte olearia. Poi altre guerre
e altre ondi di mali. Ritornano le capre e l’ulivo
si esilia, sotterra, a sognare un’altra era.
Ne rimane l’ombra, là dove Socrate parlava.
E ne portano i frutti gli antichi fusti del Getsemani.