Truffle Sprouts and the Poetry of Cabbages

Nowadays my favorite go-to dinner recipe is what I call Truffle Sprouts:

  • 1 or 2 containers brussels sprouts, washed and halved
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup truffle-flavored oil (The Truffleist makes a great one)

Pre-heat oven to 350 °F. Roast the vegetables in the oven for about 40 minutes. Let cool for 5-10 minutes. Mix in the Parmesan cheese. Drizzle everything with truffle oil. Makes one serving.

My fascination with brussels sprouts began because I found them funny in the same way children pretend to be grownups, and they have that absurd quality specific to miniatures. Also appreciated that they belong to a family. And finally, they introduced me to “cruciferous,” which is just a beautiful word. Something about the cadence of the four syllables, as well as the combination of c’s and that s, suggests robustness and structure.


My interest in cabbages deepened once I began to notice its shared similarities with the onion. The onion, I think, is conventionally the most poetic vegetable–its layers and tear-inducing pungency lend themselves to poems about the complex workings of human interiority and self-reflexivity. Consider Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to The Onion,” C. Dale Young’s “Ode to a Yellow Onion,” and Suji Kwock Kim’s “Monologue for an Onion.” 

Similarly, in Ruth Stone‘s “The Cabbage,” the titular vegetable serves as a metaphor as well as a structural device:

The Cabbage

You have rented an apartment.
You come to this enclosure with physical relief,
your heavy body climbing the stairs in the dark,
the hall bulb burned out, the landlord
of Greek extraction and possibly a fatalist.
In the apartment leaning against one wall,
your daughter’s painting of a large frilled cabbage
against a dark sky with pinpoints of stars.
The eager vegetable, opening itself
as if to eat the air, or speak in cabbage
language of the meanings within meanings;
while the points of stars hide their massive
violence in the dark upper half of the painting.
You can live with this.

The beauty of “The Cabbage” lies in the synchronicity of its structure, theme, and the image of the cabbage as a layered and, therefore, mysterious, vegetable. First off, the poem is an example of ekphrasis–the cabbage in question appears in someone’s “daughter’s painting.” As such, “The Cabbage” is an artwork within an artwork, literally embodying the cabbage’s metaphorical layers. We’re studying the poem just as the “you” examines the painting.

Reading Stone’s poem with a hermeneutical intention would be a disservice. The poem doesn’t readily reveal itself–a quality which, to my mind, is internally consistent with its structure. So many questions arise, though I’m not sure whether answering them would necessarily illuminate the poem’s meaning. For example: Who is the speaker? Who is “you”? What’s the nature of the relationship between the two? What’s the relationship between the addressed and his/her daughter?  What happened to the daughter? How old is everyone?

Ultimately, what matters is the little we do know in terms of narrative and the mood: the addressed has returned to the solitude of his/her apartment, stares into his/her daughter’s vibrant painting of a cabbage whose petals taper off into stars. Beyond that, Stone’s details describing the addressed’s living situation–the apartment is a rental, the “hall bulb burned out,” the painting is “leaning against one wall”– suggest transition, as though the character has just left one situation and is growing accustomed to his/her new one. The landlord appears as a stranger, someone of “Greek extraction and possibly a fatalist.”

So what has happened? Divorce? Death? No matter the scenario, a sense of loss permeates the poem. S/he has had a long day and, after “climbing the stairs in the dark” with a “heavy body,” has arrived at the apartment with “physical relief”–which hints at the nature of whatever s/he needed to be relieved from, as well as the emotional/psychological relief that remains to be desired.

The painting’s significance arises from not only the rich symbolism that the cabbage offers, but also its juxtaposition with the rest of its context. The speaker’s language becomes strikingly colorful and vivid once the painting appears; ironically, it’s the still life of the cabbage that brings the poem to life. “[Eating] the air” and “opening” suggest positive action, compared to the addressed’s behavior which is governed by an absence of peace. It attains an almost mythical presence that expands beyond its frame and the addressed’s present reality which is limited to the “enclosure” of his/her immediate surroundings. To enter the painting where a cabbage can speak a “cabbage / language of the meanings within meanings” is to enter an imagined space beyond human existence, and extends into infinity. This is the poem’s main argument, which is actually a defense of art–that art can heal the soul by liberating it. And the proof, I think, is offered in the last line: “You can live with this.”

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