My winter kitchen garden and the end of history

Luc-Marie de St. Etienne

My winter kitchen garden consists
Not of the parsley pots that Navy men
Who really could, from Adak, see
Russia from their house,
Would plant as a keepsake of green home
To keep their spirits up and snip into their chow,
But of a mangy basil plant that battles
The poverty of light filtering in
From the northern casement of my redoubt,

Fallback position from successive defeats,
An army perpetually on the run,
So far from its initial position—
Like Napoleon’s in the famous graph
By Eng. Minard that shows the thick column
Going in to Russia
(From the west now, not from the Bering strait)
And the trickle coming out, with
Plunging temperatures in Réamur degrees;
So graphic that you can see (you can’t not see)
The frozen devastation of his conscript army,
Les vraiment Miz,

The blood in the snow, the nickering horses,
The puny fires, the sagging spirits,
The sodden woolens,
Steaming where they face the fire,
Frozen where they face the storm.

That redoubt of mine has a basil plant
That struggles under artificial light
To push out leaves from shoots off woody stalks
That I, like Nietzsche in Torino,
Amazed by the sun and light and
Rethinking Hegel and the end of history,
Pluck whenever a meal
Conceived by an insomniac needs a lift:
An avocado, say, avatar of blandness but
So miscible, so ready
To assume and magnify the qualities of its company,
Green oil, sweet berries, suave pears, gray salt,
Black pepper, tender basil,
Unctious fruit of the sun-struck earth.

Hegel’s history died in the ravings of tyrants
Who thought themselves the apogee
Of all that slaughter, all that blood-stained snow,
Those grimacing faces frozen
Where they fell in fields without sun or vowels
Far from the bright and voweled fields
Of St Rémy, Maussane, Arles, Marseille, far
From the brilliant light in which they grew
And struggled to die in rags in snow at the caprice
Of one madman or another
In a never-ending stream.

Awake alone at night and dreaming through time and distance,
Like the Navy men in Adak with their parsley,
Like the men of Languedoc dead for their emperor in Russian slush,
Of the flickering, tender spirit of the one I love,
Who, in the little miracle that makes life worth living
On this cruel, hurtling slab, I know,
Clips her own leaves from her own struggling plant
And ponders, fonder for the green addition,
While I wonder at that moment,
Avocado eaten, sleep onrushing,
About her happiness.

 

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy