The Traveling Onion by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’ve barely had any sleep for the past three days. There are only power naps and closing my eyes for a few seconds, before I am spurred back into action, deadlines breathing down my neck. The only breaks I have are trips to the bathroom to pee. I’m so busy I don’t even have time for a cigarette. I’m down to two meals a day, thereabouts.

Anyway, here, an ode to an onion. It’s Friday night. I want to lock myself in my room and sleep until Monday, but my desk is waiting.

The Traveling Onion
Naomi Shihab Nye

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship — why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.

And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or it’s traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

2 Comments

  1. An onion seems to be a popular theme for poems…

    Two of my favourite poems:

    Valentine, By Carol Ann Duffy

    I give you an onion,
    It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
    It promises light
    like the careful undressing of love.
    Here.
    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 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.
    Take it.
    Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
    if you like.
    Lethal.
    Its scent will cling to your fingers,
    cling to your knife.

    Ode To The Onion by Pablo Neruda

    Onion,
    luminous flask,
    your beauty formed
    petal by petal,
    crystal scales expanded you
    and in the secrecy of the dark earth
    your belly grew round with dew.
    Under the earth
    the miracle
    happened
    and when your clumsy
    green stem appeared,
    and your leaves were born
    like swords
    in the garden,
    the earth heaped up her power
    showing your naked transparency,
    and as the remote sea
    in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
    duplicating the magnolia,
    so did the earth
    make you,
    onion
    clear as a planet
    and destined
    to shine,
    constant constellation,
    round rose of water,
    upon
    the table
    of the poor.

    You make us cry without hurting us.
    I have praised everything that exists,
    but to me, onion, you are
    more beautiful than a bird
    of dazzling feathers,
    heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
    unmoving dance
    of the snowy anemone

    and the fragrance of the earth lives
    in your crystalline nature.

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