Reading Neruda’s "Ode to the Onion" by Ellen Bass

Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion” by Ellen Bass

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

These young people bury the black seeds.
Weed, water, watch over them,
then pull the fat bulbs from sweet soil.
I’ve seen my son walk the rows,
nudging the drip hose, tenderly, toward the stem of a plant,
like a father checking on his sleeping child,
pulling the cover up half an inch more.

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 than the onion.

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 awhile.

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 -
like a bear scoops a salmon
from the river in its huge paw.
They love the oily orange flesh and the fins,
the pewter eye, the slimy entrails and the harp of bones.
The masters eat everything with gusto
right up to their death. And then they grab that
in their failing fist and swallow it whole.

A big SALT thank you to Ellen Bass for her amazing words and to Penelope Dullaghan for so beautifully illustrating the humble onion.  May we all so easily lift up the ordinary, so that it might be seen as it really is...