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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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