Two poems I read today were about onions. Almost invariably I think of Father Capon when onions show up in books I am reading. His directions for knowing, looking at, enjoying and using an onion will always stick with me, nudging me further down the path of loving the little things. Capon's book, theology and cookery, is also extraordinarily poetic, and his way of looking at the onion is especially poetry.
But perhaps these vegetables are ultimately poetic, these multi-layered, strong and stringent, beautiful globes with pale pale flesh, filmy slips between the layers, lightly-striped and crisp golden skin. I already admire them for the way they grow in their dark straight lines in the garden, for their crinkling tops as they dry hanging in the storage room, for their perfect circles falling in sloping stacks on my cutting board, for the way they pale and become nearly clear and then honey-colored in the bubbling butter in my frying pan, for the flavor they add to my spagghetti, my taco, my salsa and my salad, BLT and hamburger and the pork roast. But today, my love for these countertop sweet-and-hots grew a little more.
How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.
This could mean soup or risotto
or chutney (from the Sanskrit
chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions
go limp and then nacreous
and then what cookbooks call clear,
though if they were eyes you could see
clearly the cataracts in them.
It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease
from the taut ball first the brittle,
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least
recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on
weeping as you go on in, through
the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on
in to the core, to the bud-like,
acrid, fibrous skins densely
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most
pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare
and rage and murmury animal
comfort that infant humans secrete.
This is the best domestic perfume.
You sit down to eat with a rumor
of onions still on your twice-washed
hands and lift to your mouth a hint
of a story about loam and usual
endurance. It’s there when you clean up
and rinse the wine glasses and make
a joke, and you leave the minutest
whiff of it on the light switch,
later, when you climb the stairs.
Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.