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Plant Focus

Quercus tonduzii with acorn
An oak found only on a volcano in Costa Rica

"Oxblood" by James Lasdun

This is the first in a series of posts of poems featuring oaks. One of the goals stated in the International Oak Society's mission statement is "to locate, preserve, and catalog significant oak-related literature." Perhaps the Society's founders had scientific literature rather than poetry in mind when they composed the wording of this goal, but creating a brief anthology of poems that have oaks as their theme is surely a worthwhile project. James Lasdun's "Oxblood" seemed an appropriate choice to kick off the series, seeing that like our Society it has an international, transatlantic scope, combining references to a New World oak (Quercus marilandica, blackjack oak) and to one from the Old World (Q. robur, the English or common oak—in this case, the Royal Oak in which Charles II hid from his pursuers). This echoes the theme of the IOS logo, which features leaves of Q. ×bimundorum, whose epithet means "of two worlds".

If you would like to propose a poem for inclusion in this series, please click here



Mid-October, our Blackjack oak
Peppers the tar-paper roof with its ripened acorns;
Day and night, two weeks of it, Priapic
Scattershot clattering down
With every gust of wind from the mountain;
I stare outside. Impossible to sleep, think, work;

Into my mind a memory comes:
Another oak, the King Charles oak
That stood in our garden at home;
Survivor of summer lightning and winter storms,
The humps on its thick trunk bulging
Like muscles under the weight of its limbs.

One year half the buds withered
Before they’d opened. The rest stayed sickly yellow.
Oak-apples swelled on the twigs. Ringed ears of fungus
Sprouted from the scar of a lopped-off branch.
‘Oxblood,’ the tree-doctor said,
And showed you where to dig it in.

The blood was granular, rich-smelling, moist, its crimson
Concentrated, masquerading as black:
I fingered it with a boy’s
Professional interest in new substances:
Elixir of mud and fire; alchemic cack …
We dug it into the sloping lawn,

And waited – three years, four years,
Bad years, lithium years; lost jobs and breakdowns;
Your children’s serial adolescence;
Once in a twilit hospital room
We watched your sleeping body on the bed;
Trespassers in the kingdom of the dead,

Bearing our modest gifts like ransom …
And then one spring the buds came strong again,
Lobed sprigs bubbling a haze, and like the stick
That blossomed when it stirred Medea’s potion,
The tree burst into leaf so thick
Its namesake could have hidden in its crown

All summer from his father’s killers.
And I think of you now in your office, flourishing,
Bullish again, imperious, firing commands,
The silver claw-grip pencil firm in your hands,
Work warding off regret, age, doubt,
Catastrophe that stalks you through your friends,

Though if it should bring its regicidal axe
Against your neck, I think the cut would show
Not flesh but tree-rings circling back to zero,
And I wonder as I listen to this oak’s
Triumphal drum, what sorceress filled your veins,
And who was the sacrificial ox.



Posted by permission of the author

James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in the U.S. He has published novels, a memoir, collections of poetry, and books of short stories. His most recent books are Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Victory, a pair of short novels, one of which, Afternoon of a Faun, is published separately in the U.S. (the other was previously published in the Paris Review). With Jonathan Nossiter he co-wrote the film Sunday, which won Best Feature and Best Screenplay awards at Sundance, and Signs and Wonders, starring Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgaard. With Michael Hofmann he edited the anthology After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. With his wife Pia Davis he has written two guide books, Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria, and Walking and Eating in Provence. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The London Review of Books, The New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker.

His work has been widely translated and won numerous awards, including the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. He has been a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize, and the LA Times Book Prize. His first novel, The Horned Man, was a New York Times Notable Book, and his second, Seven Lies, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.