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By William Matthews

How easily happiness begins by   

dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter   

slithers and swirls across the floor   

of the sauté pan, especially if its   

errant path crosses a tiny slick

of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.


This could mean soup or risotto   

or chutney (from the Sanskrit

chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions   

go limp and then nacreous

and then what cookbooks call clear,   

though if they were eyes you could see


clearly the cataracts in them.

It’s true it can make you weep

to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   

from the taut ball first the brittle,   

caramel-colored and decrepit

papery outside layer, the least


recent the reticent onion

wrapped around its growing body,   

for there’s nothing to an onion

but skin, and it’s true you can go on   

weeping as you go on in, through   

the moist middle skins, the sweetest


and thickest, and you can go on   

in to the core, to the bud-like,   

acrid, fibrous skins densely   

clustered there, stalky and in-

complete, and these are the most   

pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare


and rage and murmury animal   

comfort that infant humans secrete.   

This is the best domestic perfume.   

You sit down to eat with a rumor

of onions still on your twice-washed   

hands and lift to your mouth a hint


of a story about loam and usual   

endurance. It’s there when you clean up   

and rinse the wine glasses and make   

a joke, and you leave the minutest   

whiff of it on the light switch,

later, when you climb the stairs.


William Matthews, “Onions” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991. Copyright © 1992 by William Matthews. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved, www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

Source: Selected Poems and Translations 1969-1991 (1992)

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Poet Bio

William Matthews
William Matthews was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and attended Yale University and the University of North Carolina. He served as the president of the Poetry Society of America and chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, taught at many universities, and published ten volumes of poems. In his poetry, Matthews dismisses intense, immediate emotions, choosing instead to write with a classical objectivity and intelligent wit while exploring uses of language and his own relationship to poetry. In “Mingus at the Showplace,” Matthews displays his humor and self-awareness as he relates poetry to another of his passions, jazz. See More By This Poet

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