Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Black Walnut Tree” is a poem about connection. Like her fellow Ohio native James Wright, to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, American Primitive (1983), Oliver continually strives to illustrate the ties between people and place, often ending in some transcendent moment or epiphany. As the title of the collection Twelve Moons, in which “The Black Walnut Tree” first appeared, suggests, Oliver often discovers the connections between people and place in the primitive, natural order.

Oliver’s search for elemental connections, like those associated with the moon, occur in “The Black Walnut Tree” when the poet and her mother are confronted with the demands of the present. However, the true conflict in this poem, which leads more toward insight than epiphany, is the undeniable hold that the past has on the present.

What prevents the poet or her mother from having the tree removed and paying off the mortgage is the knowledge of the tree’s connection to a past that includes generations of men and women working the fields of Oliver’s Ohio home, where the vines of their lives were woven into the very soil that they lived upon. To remove a visible symbol of this past connection—a living history told in the limbs, leaves, and fruit of this looming tree—would be to ignore and, in a sense, betray the universal truth that people are known and come to know others by recognizing the lines of history and their intersection in the present, pushing ever on toward an unknowable future. Consequently, with this insight, after dreaming of her fathers working the orchards they had planted, Oliver explains what she and her mother both know, “that we’d crawl with shame/ in the emptiness we’d made,” a truly profound insight for what appears to be a rather modest poem.