Over the weekend we managed to abstract ourselves from the Concrete City, and drive down into the Peloponnese to Sparta. Outside of Sparta, heading up into the foothills of Taygetus, our friend, poet Mark Sargent, has a house with spectacular views of the mountain range (famed as a spot for exposing less-than-perfect Spartan infants in ancient times), and some fine groves of olive trees. We were there to help with the harvest. I'm not sure we were much help in the end (it was probably more help to us not-exactly-new Athenians to get out of town)--we could only stay one full day, Monday, and while Mark was up in the trees cutting out the dead wood, and my husband was raking the olives into nets, I was entertaining a toddler. And also musing on a host of things, of course, including year-end harvests of poems.

Olive picking is like nothing so much as... nit-picking. You comb the egg-shaped olives out of the silvery hair of the olive trees with a little rake. The not-exactly-pastoral simile of nit-picking kept coming to me, try to shake it as I might. (There is a permanent warning up at my son's pre-school to be on the look-out for lice, so I suppose it is in the back of my mind. It hasn't happened yet, but I know it is just a matter of time...) What an odd simile too for going over one's poems and seeking imperfections, as if a single flaw might break out into a full-blown infestation.
Olive harvests tend, they say, to go in two-year cycles. This wasn't such a good year. We've been in the midst of a drought. (Olives love their autumn rains.) Not to mention the inferno of fires that scorched so many acres. (Moment of toddler logic: driving down we passed some of the scorched areas. Jason wanted to know "who" had burnt the trees. My husband, a journalist, who had reported on the fires said, "I don't know," as he was trying to come up with an answer. Jason then rejoined, "I think the fire burnt the trees." Game. Match.) Mark's olives looked like they had done well, though--the large Kalamata eating olives and the hard, silvery plum-blue and green olives that will be pressed for oil--what wonderful stuff that new green oil is!
Well, this year hasn't been a great year for harvesting poems. Pretty meagre, in fact. It's been... a laconic year. But there are drafts that might still be salvaged. Some say it is the unripe olives that make the finest oil. I don't know. I'll keep pressing.

Originally Published: December 7th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. December 8, 2007
     Mark Sargent

    Actually, Alicia and John were not only a great help but wonderful company as well. Nice having classicists about discussing Socrates behind the olive trees and when I cooked some meat over the fire they both exclaimed, "How Homeric!"