Oxblood

James Lasdun

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.