Monday, April 18, 2011

William Matthews, Onions, minutest whiff

I don't have too awfully much on my mind tonight. Isn't that a gift? No rancor, no hidden fears nibbling, no loneliness or regret. This too shall pass, of course, but hey, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

In fact I decided to post just now because I saw this illustration, anime, and knew there had to be a poem to accompany. While there must be a Japanese poem--how could there not be, so many little gardens, so much flavor--I am settling on a William Matthews' onion poem, droll and fine. Cultural juxtaposition never hurt anyone.

Is that true? I doubt it. Still, here's the poem. It's entitled "Karl Marx." No! It's called "Bridget Fonda on the Bridge." No!


by William Matthews

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.

William Matthews, “Onions” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991, Houghton Mifflin Company.

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