carmen bugan

Dreaming of Holy Basil

Carmen Bugan

I suppose there are unplanted gardens in all of us. Neglected spaces. Parts of the soul lying fallow. Stores of seeds forgotten in memory. Dreams of clearings. Fresh earth, smelling both like graves and like renewing grass, wild meadows.

This spring a garden has sprung in my mind, like those of my childhood, where peppers stood on their stems in the full garb of their colors, watermelons grew by the water well, and the flowers from the quince tree (Cydonia oblonga) and busuioc, or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), were constant companions. The holy basil of the priest’s blessings: for the holidays, for big family events, for rites of passage, during illness. I try to recreate the dry feeling in my hands of the small posy above the icon of St Mary and her child, but what returns to me is the sorrow that I felt each time as the dried flowers fell to the floor while I brought them to my face to smell them. I see in my mind’s eye our faces glistening with fragrant drops of holy water, wet fragments of petals catching on our clothes. Then I think of bittersweet red radishes, white and crunchy in the middle: when was the last time I took a bright radish straight from the earth, washed it with cold well-water and ate it standing in the garden, with not a cloud of worry on my mind?

The loneliness from the pandemic sent us migrating within, looking for comfort and peace in memories, but this spring I took my children outside and said that we will have a garden. They had never planted potatoes before, or garlic or onions, and we started with these, because we could just place them in the ground, whole. My husband was bemused: ‘You bury them just like this? They will grow? Come out?’ Alisa and Stefano took the potatoes in their hands and stood in the sunshine radiating joy, with socks over trousers, long white shirts, wide-brimmed hats. I am keeping a journal in poetry. I don’t want to forget. I share here three poems that meditate on time – the time of our lives – on the moments I would like to preserve like wildflowers in a book, to surprise a moment in the future.

The tree doctor

Ms Carmen, he smiled, I’ll make you a nice garden
But first we must take care of the trees, cut off dead limbs.
So here he is this afternoon, with an orange rope 
Fastened around his body, climbing 
To the top branch that arches over the house.

He greets the trunk as he would a close friend,
Makes his way up, one boot and one glove at a time,
Chainsaw behind his back, the bark responding
To his body with dry, reassuring sound, while I
Stand in the yard with my children, holding my breath. 

Then he cuts off the branches we feared this past year–
Precisely, like a surgeon, one by one; and they fall
With a loud thump to the ground, sending little tremors
Under our feet. I watch him transfixed: he is agile, 
Entrancing like a dancer in the tree’s embrace.

When he appears on the ground, down from the treetop,
He asks, are these your children? they are so young.
Then he turns directly to my face, smiling once again: 
You waited for a long time to have children. Yes,
I started late, I say, feeling myself tree and branch at once.

11 March 2021

Irenicon

I fear that what it was, was spent,
We can no longer find ourselves
Or space for each other.

I threw thousands of aster seeds
Around the mailbox, where we go
Every day to look for other news.

I said we need to enclose the space
With stones, so that the lawnmowers
Won’t kill the flowers before they grow.

So there you are with our daughter,
Digging stones around the backyard
And building a circle around the seeds;

Busy with something to do, 
Designing the shelter for what we
Could be seeing months from now,

An address to what will become memory,
A way to address each other, marking 
That which could grow inside us.

23 April 2021

First of May

                                       for Kathy

Io retornai da la santissima onda
rifatto sì come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda,
puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.

                                                       –Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII 141-145

One week of furious flowering, when forsythia
burns in gardens, magnolias open like butterflies,
the ground fills with blue wild pansies, violets,
and then the winds come stealing all the petals 
with their scented spells: the grass, a meadow
of rhododendron blooms early in the morning,
the edges of the garden, coloured. Spring
is passing once again, leaving chicks in nests,
us outside planting just as lilacs begin to bloom,
and summer shade of maples leafing. 

I try to hold my thoughts to all these images
like I lift fresh curtains up to hang on windows,
where light will pass through, sheltering the eye
from too much sun but letting it also see outside,
where forsythia changes from yellow to green.
The Orthodox Easter Lent at the end, 
praying with my children over new seeds we planted 
and the robins blessed with their songs,
I emerged from the holiest waves
restored even as new trees were
renewed with new leaves,
pure and prepared to rise to the stars.*

*my translation of the Dante’s verses quoted in the epigraph



I know my children will remember this garden for always. There is something in the way they greet the first shoots of shallots, the first tiny chives, the fat, low-lying tiny potato plants. We filled out all the ceramic yogurt pots we didn’t know what to do with, and planted seeds of mint, chamomile, lemon balm, echinacea, lavender, holy basil, calendula, and put them all around the raised garden beds.

At night Alisa and Stefano come into my bedroom and ask for stories – the one about raising a lamb in Ireland, where Brian leaves buckets of potatoes and bags of mussels at the front door of the cottage; another about digging the garden in the spring with a shovel till the palms of my hands are blistered and my whole body is worn out; and the one about eating tomatoes straight from the vines. 

Many things are missing from our lives now – we dwell in uncertainties. But we are planting. I am planting memories, and I am planting all the things I am afraid to say out loud. Alisa and Stefano are planting the future. The robins give us their songs, the spring winds put pink rhododendrons in Alisa’s long, golden hair. Stefano’s big, warm brown eyes look deeply into me.


April 2022  Carmen Bugan MONK


A gorgeous version of this interview appears in our beautiful 180 page print anthology, £15. Click here to order.


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