My Mother is an Onion

My mother is not an onion. Let me make that clear immediately. When I arrived here, I was given ownership of a huge existing introductory creative writing course, taught by a team of instructors.  That first year, I inherited materials already sent out to students. Those materials included an exercise prompt in which budding poets were meant to write in response to the sentence “My mother is an onion.” After a flood of similar responses that left instructors in, er, tears, I was challenged at some point by one of them to write my own response. The resulting poem appeared in the NZ journal Bravado and is in my new collection of poetry, A History of Glass. Given the garden theme and to celebrate the release of the book, I thought I’d share it:

My Mother is an Onion

I spend the day reading student poems
with this title. One student’s mother
leaves a bad taste in his mouth; another’s
gives the soup of her life its savor;
a third discovers layer by layer within
herself, as she ages, the seeds of her mother’s
own frustrated desires; and one mother
brings her son so often to tears that he must
keep her in the dark of a psychological
root cellar. I’m supposed to assign grades
but put it off, gaze through the window
by my desk as shadows stretch in the yard,
light blossoms behind the oak. I feel
I should instruct them to learn something
about the onion. I should tell them
Egyptians once worshipped it for markings
of eternity in its spherical shape,
its concentric rings, which are so much like
the circles we travel: my sister and I
around our mother, my daughter
and I around hers, my own around
my grandmother, a month in the earth,
my mother ten thousand miles away
in the privacy of her mourning. I wonder
what she is doing now. Probably,
she has been asleep for hours on the other side
of the world. Probably she’s wondered why
I haven’t written a poem about her lately,
about the care with which she has tended the year’s
vegetable garden. She would want me to be
true, as she always has, to the observed world:
sweat in the folds of her neck, dirt
beneath her nails, but she would want me
to move beyond such descriptions,
not to suggest that she, too, has come through
the darkness, a moderate freeze or two,
but to find in the world some corollary
for how we all want to be compared
with what is pure, beautiful, rare,
to suggest we, too, are worthy
of worship, the kind our children offer
before taking it away. What I know
of my own mother seems suddenly
tendril, for there is no vegetable garden
to sow, only houseplants on the balcony,
hanging like questions.
Yet I think my mother would allow it,
would say, you are still young, it is not too late,
and though I have no more idea than you do
what she means or to what spectral shed
she returns tools she does not own,
I promise you she picks them up from the grass,
and before leaving the poem for the dream,
of the future or the past, from which I have
so selfishly summoned her, she stares now
with me toward that unreachable distance
into which the day goes to seed after seed.

Note: Examples are invented. You have our promise here at The Lazy Gardener that no student work was harmed in the writing of this poem.

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3 Responses to My Mother is an Onion

  1. Sarah Piazza says:

    I love the last part especially. “spectral shed”… gorgeous.

  2. Oh this is so lovely Bryan. My Mother is an Onion. Ach, I love it.

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