Monday, February 8, 2010

Today's Poem - The Black Walnut Tree by Mary Oliver

The Black Walnut Tree
by Mary Oliver
from Twelve Moons (1979)
and collected in New and Selected Poems, Volume One (1992)

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood – an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don't do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we'd crawl with shame
in the emptiness we'd made
in our own and our fathers' backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.

More Mary Oliver poems at Letters from a Hill Farm:
here, here, here, here, and here.


  1. Mary's poems bridge the space between the seen world and my heart.

    I keep this book next to my bed and turn to it and her newest for daily inspiration.

    Isn't that a wonderful gift to share with us?

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  2. I wouldn't have been able to cut it down either. We lost a huge tree last year and I cried when my husband had to cut it up!

  3. I just love Mary. It is funny that you are posting about her today. I am rereading New & Selected Poems Volume Two. I have read 'Mockingbirds' I don't know how many times. The first two stanzas make my heart sing every time I read them.

  4. Nan, I was reading this very poem from the same collection last night. She always gets to the heart of the matter doesn't she? Her poems are so utterly full of humanity, and how hard it is to be human sometimes. She captures the joy in a fleeting moment, and underpins it with a phrase that roots it in our bodies and souls.
    I love the synchronicity , even if I can't spell it!

  5. Sharon, I just read she is the bestselling poet, and no wonder! She is clear and understandable and uplifting. We know what she means. We can feel what she feels.

    Staci, we have a big maple out front which was hit by a little tornado-like thing in the late 1990s. We lost a chunk of it and feared we'd have to cut the whole thing down, but it is still going strong. A big tree is such a part of the past, of the history of a place. I'm sorry for the loss of yours.

    Lisa, isn't it interesting that both you and Sharon use the word 'heart?' I think that says so much about her writing. It is a link between her heart and the reader's. What a wonder she is. I need to buy Vol. 2.

    Jenclair, isn't she wonderful? You must feel this a bit after your storm.

    Carole, amazing, but not surprising! And there is that word 'heart' again! I so wish you would begin a blog. Your writing is exquisite. You express your thoughts and feelings so beautifully.

  6. thank you for sharing mary,
    everytime i read her
    she makes me feel differently
    about things in my life


  7. Wonderful poem, thankyou - I shall go and look her poems up, I didn't know her.
    We too have a walnut tree, and each year the squirrels bury green walnuts all over the garden, and little ones come sprouting up. It's so hard to uproot them - but I can't have a garden full of walnut trees!

  8. Katherine, what a wonderful story. I love picturing them doing this. Gra(e)y squirrels, right? I read a book by Alan Titchmarsh where he talks about efforts to bring back the red squirrels in England. It was fiction, but I'm assuming that is true? It's called Animal Instincts.

    I think you will like Mary Oliver's work.

  9. I like the poem. I've heard the name Mary Oliver before but didn't know anything about her.I just looked her up on Wikipedia after reading this poem.

  10. Larry, she has such an appreciation for the natural world. I haven't known about her all that long myself, but am so happy to have found her work. I love her poems.


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