Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Olive Stump

What stands out for me in the first two stanzas of Sherod Santos's "The Olive Stump" is his use of the word "but":


When hearing the name of Turnus,
Aeneas leapt the high walls of the citadel
and took the field, the crimsoned warring soldiers
might've marveled, might've set aside their shields
and dropped their battering rams, but they couldn't
have been surprised. The open ground was cleared.

An old wild olive surviving shipwrecked
seamen had for centuries fixed with offerings to
a sheltering god was cut down with the rest and left
a stump. The gods overlook a lot of things, but not
a slight. Aeneas's launched spearhead buried itself
in that tough wood and the hero could not rearm.

These two contrasts function in the same way: "They might've ... but they couldn't" and "overlook ..., but not." The soldiers and the gods are Aeneas's audience; the contrasts highlight how they respond to the hero's actions: this, but not that.

This use of "but" in the first two stanzas marks an alternative in which there's one thing but not another. That is how "or" is normally also used, but the word's use in the third and fourth stanzas of the poem is quite different:


At least until a siding spirit intervened and broke
the bite. The hero weighed his heavy weapon
and towered up again. We're not told if
the olive bled, or if it wept. Like the man
who clung to the lead pipe a Hutu soldier used
to beat his wife and son, it was beside the point.

Meanwhile, the upper hand was hammered out
by the powers that be. The scales were lifted,
balanced, trued. The fight's outcome was settled on.
Who knows what happened to the olive stump,
or to the family of the man the Hutu soldier
dragged outdoors, doused with kerosene and burned.

These stanzas present an alternative only to dismiss it: the first alternative is "beside the point"; the second is framed by an equivalent question ("Who knows?"). The two scenes of violence that the poem compares (Aeneas, a Hutu soldier) generate effects and lead t0 conclusions—but is n'tthe poem saying that they are, in the end, "beside the point"? An epic hero is compared to a faceless participant in genocide, and the heroism is diminished.

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