“Poetry emphasizes the moment and minutes and unrepeatable processes of the soul making itself. You feel the enormous pressures put upon language, because each word has to be chipped out of silence and chosen out of desire. When you read a great poem you get a sense of continuous danger that the poem won’t go on. That blank space at the end of each line isn’t just spatial, it’s intellectual and emotional. It confronts what’s ungraspable in our lives and can’t be put into words.”
~ Suji Kwock Kim
On this last Poetry Friday of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, I’m excited to share a truly exquisite poem: “Monologue for an Onion,” by Suji Kwock Kim.
The onion as a metaphor doesn’t seem so remarkable in itself; upon reading the title you’ve probably already assumed the poet will talk about “layers” and peeling them away to get at the truth. Yes, there is that, but there’s a bigger irony at play here, because the onion will implore you (and the person addressed in the poem), to stop peeling, stop cutting, stop chopping and relentlessly searching, and you will be compelled to do just the opposite.
Each time I read the poem, I feel the need to reread it. I want to get at its truth, its core. Regardless of what the onion says. Perhaps it is human nature to search for deeper truth, to not accept something at face value, even if it means destroying yourself in the process: “Is this the way you go through life, your mind a stopless knife, driven by your fantasy of truth, Of lasting union — slashing away skin after skin From things, ruin and tears your only signs of progress?”
Here’s what else I like:
~ the poem is constructed like an onion, continuously winding in on itself. Kim doesn’t use conventional end rhyme, but embeds it in the middle of lines (stanzas 3-4 with rhymes “skin” and “in” and “life” and “knife”).
~ the onion declares from the beginning that it holds no further truth or meaning than what its outer layer shows, yet as we continue through the poem, more and more is revealed with each stanza.
~ the violent images of a knife slashing and destroying have political connotations; this and other poems in Kim’s collection examine the pain and turmoil of a divided Korea, and the tyranny of the Japanese occupation.
~ the infusion of many ironies: the one cutting the onion looks for a center when he himself lacks one, the one who has cut the onion is in pieces, etc.
Ultimately, human beings seek love, understanding, and truth — the heart of things. But the onion tells us we have “a core that is not one.” We will always remain divided, for as soon as we uncover one thing, fresh desire will slash through us once again.
MONOLOGUE FOR AN ONION
by Suji Kwock Kim
I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,
The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.
Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion — pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.
~ from Notes from the Divided Country (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Wild Rose Reader.