Editor’s Note: This week’s Eating and Drinking Poems post is a collaboration between guest writer Nicole Gulotta, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda , the island of Capri, an unknown (presumably French) soup genius, and the humble onion. With Nicole’s help, we hope you can savor the beauty of this mundane vegetable’s literary and culinary transformation.
Today, we consider the onion. There may be a bowl of them on your counter, or several tucked next to a large bulb of garlic, waiting to be peeled and sliced. Compared to other, more glamorous ingredients–figs, pomegranates, and chocolate come to mind—the onion is positively ordinary. But Pablo Neruda knew a little something about the ordinary, and wrote 225 odes that breathed new life into the mundane objects that surround us every day.
Most of Neruda’s odes were written in the mid-1950s while living on the island of Capri. In All The Odes, editor Ilan Stavans writes that Neruda sought to use “loose, jazzy rhythm to describe, often in ecstatic ways, the power of an apparently uninteresting item . . . In his stanzas, he portrays himself as in a state of constant communion with nature, a mystic in love with all things in his environment.”
No subject was too dull. Chairs, tables, the dictionary, ironing, and a jar of mayonnaise are all treated like precious gold coins, and made to be seen in a different light once we’ve finished the last line of his poem. The odes are a call to action, urging us to pause and consider with fresh eyes all the beauty that can be found in the world.
ODE TO THE ONION
by Pablo Neruda
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
clear as a planet
round rose of water,
of the poor.
You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
Perhaps the most marvelous lines in this poem are “under the earth / the miracle / happened.” Neruda wants us to reach below the soil’s surface, to the place where life begins. He peels away the onion’s layers to reveal its beauty. In paying tribute to this vegetable, I can think of no better recipe than French Onion Soup for a cold winter’s day.
Photo, recipe, and post by Nicole Gulotta, of the literary food blog Eat This Poem.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In January, we’re exploring the theme Doors and Passageways.