I first heard Doris Stengel‘s poem “Vernon’s White Onions” in a reading at a publishing party for The Talking Stick (Vol 19, 2010). Talking Stick is a literary journal published by the Jackpine Writers Bloc, a group of dedicated writers who live and work in central Minnesota. The party took place in an unpretentious hall in Park Rapids. I remember a low ceiling and rows of folding chairs, and a very long drive to get there. Volume 19 included a piece of my flash fiction, and I would be reading, too.
Here is what stays with me from that afternoon: how all these writers, everyday Minnesotans like me, people with work and children and a boatload of other obligations nonetheless gathered on a chilly spring day to read their writing to each other, to family, to friends. Found or made time to sit in the company of other poets and storytellers to read, and to listen. There was a teenaged girl whose piece was the first she’d ever read publicly. There were many older writers, too. Their work reflected all aspects of life, of course, but it was impossible not to hear volumes of loss underpinning much of it.
A friend who knows I am interested in these things recently sent me a link to a piece in the Guardian, “The Sacred in Art is About More Than Religion,” by Kenan Malik. In the article Mr. Malik asks what it is that is “sacred” about sacred art. He suggests that while for religious people the sacred may be associated with the holy and the divine, “There is, however,” he writes, “another sense in which we can think about the sacred in art. Not so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an explanation of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry.”
The sacred, then, in what it is to be human. You and me, right here in this world, seeing and seeking the sacred in the beauty and suffering of everyday life. The sacred–unbelievably, really–how lucky are we?–in Vernon’s white onions.
Vernon’s White Onions
The rows of white onions
in my brother’s garden
grew straight as virtue
untainted by the gossip
of a single weed.
On my cutting board
they spill juicy little secrets
held inside all summer,
unaware they are the last onions
to be planted by his hands,
graced by his tender care.
I weep, not for onions,
but for my brother
now neatly planted in his own plot.
I chop this sweet harvest,
scoop its goodness into a stew
made from our mother’s recipe.
It simmers in a cast iron pot
inherited from grandmother;
she long dead, mother long dead.
My brother’s death only a rumor
until my onion bin is bare.
(“Vernon’s White Onions” previously published by Jackpine Writers Bloc and reprinted here with their permission and permission of the author, Doris Stengel. Available in Doris’s new chapbook, SMALL TOWN LINES.)