Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, PEELING ONIONS, by ADRIENNE CECILE RICH



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

PEELING ONIONS, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


Adrienne Cecile Rich's "Peeling Onions" functions as a poetic testament to the complexity of grief and emotional labor. Through the metaphor of peeling onions, Rich juxtaposes the physical tears generated by the act with a deeper, more nuanced form of emotional weeping.

The poem starts with a somewhat paradoxical wish: "Only to have a grief / equal to all these tears!" It is a lament that the speaker's physical tears have no emotional counterparts-suggesting perhaps that the speaker's ability to grieve has been dulled or numbed. This desire for an emotional match to the physical act of crying underscores the imbalance between external appearances and inner emotions.

The mention of Peer Gynt, a character from Ibsen's play who avoids all emotional responsibilities, serves as an admission that the speaker feels emotionally disconnected. The line "Dry-hearted as Peer Gynt" not only acknowledges an absence of emotional sobbing but also serves as a self-critical remark. Peer Gynt is not a hero; he is a flawed man who avoids emotional entanglement, just as the speaker is "no hero, / merely a cook."

The phrase "Crying was labour, once / when I'd good cause" adds another layer of complexity. The speaker intimates that there was a time when emotional release was a cathartic struggle, perhaps even a necessary one. Then, the imagery of "eyes like wounds" and the feeling of being scrutinized, even by animals, creates a picture of visible, acute grief that has now transmuted into something more opaque.

By the end of the poem, all that remains are "These old tears in the chopping-bowl." Here, the tears lose their emotional potency and are merely a byproduct of a domestic chore. The absence of emotional relief is emphasized by the "old tears," suggesting that even the tears are stale, unable to generate new emotion. This also creates a circular, inescapable sense of emotional stasis; the speaker is caught in a repetitive cycle, chopping onions and shedding tears, but never progressing emotionally. The "chopping-bowl" becomes a receptacle for both culinary ingredients and the remnants of unresolved, or perhaps unresolvable, emotions.

"Peeling Onions" works on several levels, serving as both a literal and metaphorical commentary on the act of crying. It scrutinizes the limitations of physical expressions to convey complex emotional states and questions the validity of tears as symbols of genuine suffering. Within this sparse, understated poem, Rich captures the dissonance between the physical act of crying and the emotional desolation that cannot be so easily released or understood


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