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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Number 36: Naomi Shihab Nye: "The Traveling Onion"

The Traveling Onion

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 Cookbook

When 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 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,

— Naomi Shihab Nye

Hap Notes: Naomi Shihab Nye (born 1952), currently a resident of San Antonio, Texas, comes from a family of mixed cultures. Her mom was an American and her father, Aziz Shihab, was a Palestinian journalist whose long career included work with the BBC, the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the Jerusalem Times, the San Antonio Express News and the Dallas Morning News as well as starting the American paper The Arab Star. Nye spent time in Jerusalem when she was 14 with her family and the cultural mix certainly influenced her life and work creating a sensitive awareness of the similarities and differences of the cultures of the world. Her work often carries the colors of that theme.

Nye has written children's books and poetry anthologies as well as poetry books. She has won the Pushcart Prize a whopping four times, the Paterson poetry prize and many notable book citations from the American Library Association.

"The Traveling Onion" is a seamless blend of layers with almost as many layers as an onion has itself. Cooks know that when an onion is put into a stew, or in fact any kind of broth or water, the water content in the onion, if cooked long enough, will cause the onion to sort of melt into the liquid. It's original physical presence gets reduced to merely a wisp of translucence and a taste. It can literally disappear, too, leaving only its flavor behind.

Now, you peel the layers from this poem, which has to do with so much, starting with its origins in India and ending up in a stew in America. But there's way more than that in the words. So much richness in this poem. Savor it.

Here's a great quote from Nye: "Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”

You can find more Nye here:

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