I thought I had two different translations of Nobel Prize winning poet Wyslawa Szymborska’s poem, “The Onion.” But what I have is two books by her, neither one of which has the poem. I love the poem for the way it interrogates the complex and ordinary Onion, impoverished baronet of vegetables.
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
the onion, now that’s something else
its innards don’t exist
nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist
oniony on the inside
onionesque it appears
it follows its own daimonion
without our human tears
our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare to go
an internal inferno
the anathema of anatomy
in an onion there’s only onion
from its top to it’s toe
at peace, at peace
internally at rest
inside it, there’s a smaller one
of undiminished worth
the second holds a third one
the third contains a fourth
a centripetal fugue
nature’s rotundest tummy
its greatest success story
the onion drapes itself in it’s
own aureoles of glory
we hold veins, nerves, and fat
secretions’ secret sections
not for us such idiotic
I often suspect that my college freshman writers think of writing a paper as starting with a tiny nub of an idea and gradually building their argument, layer by layer, along with blood, sweat, and tears, until they have a fat little paper with lots of impressive words like “plethora,” “utilize” and “myriad.” Sometimes it even begins with a layer the size of a pumpkin: “Since the beginning of time, man has…”
In such cases, I am the one with the stinging eyes, who stands to clear my head.
In contrast, I feel like writing a paper for me is starting with a big-ass onion and peeling it down, layer by layer and draft after draft, until I have a small, beautiful thing: a pearl of bittersweet onioniciousness to convey my complex ideas. Generally my first completed draft of an essay is 35-40 pages long, but since folks rarely publish anything over 15-20 pages, my revision process generally involves me in the drawing room with a machete.
But, since onions, over time, are either eaten or they rot, I do not in fact have an onion at my office at MIT to serve as an object lesson in the layering and unlayering that is the process of writing. Instead, I have a matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll. Another benefit in addition to unrottability is that if I pick it up to make a point to my students, neither of us will end of crying.
Ahh, the onionicity of it all. 🙂
“In today’s society…” (How I tire of that one.) And yes, what IS with the plethora of “plethora” and the myriad “myriad”s?? Vocab words in high school?? Please, folks…
Which is to say, I feel your pain. However, I’m commenting because I like the Russian doll/onion metaphor for drafting. That is often exactly how it feels.
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Yes! “Vocabulary” Ugh. AND the SATs.
“a myriad of aspects”
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