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  • Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”, and: When You Bring in the Paper, and: Ode to Invisibility
  • Ellen Bass (bio)

Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”

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. [End Page 74] 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. [End Page 75]

When You Bring in the Paper

You’ve seen these photos before, empty bird cage ribs of a child sitting in the dust. But this copper, naked body, shining supine on the front page of August 2, 2011, seems more insect than child, swollen chest, a thorax, bent limbs jutting at angles, hip fleshless as the joint of a Jerusalem cricket, skull bug, niña de la tierra. Though her brow is hidden in the shadow of her arm, ulna and radius, the crested head of the humerus show through sheer skin. Even the ear has given up its lobe, the fuzz of hair, thinned. She’s hollow, a mandolin, polished wood, gleaming. How long can she last twisted on the flowered cloth, maybe a sheet or her mother’s dress. No one sings here. Not even birds. Light reflects off every curve, the veins of her feet rise up like scars. Her soles, pale as a creature who’s been unearthed. [End Page 76]

Ode to Invisibility

O loveliness. O lucky beauty. I wanted it and I couldn’t bear it. Back in the days before self-serve gas, when the attendant leaned over my windshield, I didn’t know where to look. I could feel his damp rag rubbing the glass between us. Or walking from the subway, even in my work boots and woolen babushka. All those slouched men plastered to the brick walls around the South End of Boston. I could feel them quicken, their mouths opening like baby birds. I was too beautiful and never beautiful enough. Ironing my frizzy hair on the kitchen table. All the dark and bright creams to sculpt my cheekbones, musk dotted on my hot pulses, and that pink angora bikini that itched like desire as I lay myself down under the gold of a sky we didn’t yet fear. Hello, my pretty. Your ankles were elegant, your breasts such splendor men were blinded by their solar flare. These days, I’m more...


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pp. 74-78
Launched on MUSE
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