Ellen Bass

Issue #
September 8, 2014

Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”

My son brings the poem to his farm crew
gathered with coffee in the makeshift lean-to, 7 a.m.,
the sun already at its green work, and they don’t believe it
when Neruda says the onion is more beautiful
than a bird of dazzling feathers. . . heavenly globe. . .
dance of the snowy anemone.

These young people bury the black seeds.
Weed, water, watch over them,
then pull the fat bulbs from sweet dirt.
I’ve seen my son walk the rows,
nudging the drip hose over the small shoulder
of soil toward the stem of a plant.

I say, long live their insistence on reality.
May they always muddy their hands in the actual,
handle the hard evidence of the earth.

But if Neruda could stretch the accordion of time,
he’d explain that when he says he loves the onion
more than the birds, it doesn’t mean
he loves the birds less.

When he thinks of the onion, there is nothing
but onion-ness, translucent sleeves that give way
to only themselves. When he praises the onion,
nothing else exists, like nothing else exists
in the center of the onion. Like nothing else exists
when you fall in love.

The rest of the world goes silent.
For a while.

And then the earth starts to turn again.
Seasons reappear.
You get hungry and want a sandwich.
One day you read a book.
You may even fall in love with someone else.

The great ones regard every moment like this,
catch it as it swims—onion, bird, flower, fish—
the way a bear scoops a salmon from the river.
They love the oily orange flesh and the fins,
the pewter eye, the slimy entrails, and the harp of bones.
The masters eat everything right up to their death.
And then they grab that, too, in their failing fist.

-from Like a Beggar, Copper Canyon Press, 2014

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