The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Three (Nye)

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Onions

I’m always a fan of that which praises something humble–in this case, the onion of Renoir’s still and of Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem, “The Traveling Onion.” Leave it to a poet to look at a passage in a cookbook, and from it, create something so full of depth and beauty–so simultaneously simple and complex. The onion, the stew, the efforts in the kitchen–these may all be transient–but the poem is forever.

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 CookbookWhen 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 its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

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