Love’s Parallel Universe: a study of Szymborska’s The Onion and Neruda’s Leaning into the Afternoons
Love has many paradoxical dimensions. It is simple yet complex, glorified yet vilified, powerful yet weak, constructive yet disastrous. Each one of us has experienced love in some way or the other and has attained our own slant on it. Pablo Neruda and Wislawa Szymborska have expressed some of its dimensions in their love poems. To look at this in depth, I will compare and contrast two poems; Leaning into the Afternoons by Pablo Neruda and The Onion by Wislawa Szymborska.
The poem, Leaning into the Afternoon, is a spontaneous outpouring of Neruda’s melancholic emotions at being separated from his beloved whom he describes through magnificent oceanic and natural imagery. His unbearable sense of loss is reflected in phrases such as, “absent eyes” and “distant female” that clearly indicate to the readers that his love is lost in the ocean of time. On the other hand, The Onion is a description of love through an extended metaphor of an onion. Szymborska relates a mundane and malodorous vegetable to something as gloriously fragrant as love. Unlike Neruda’s, this poem is hardly private passion of the poet but is more of a panoramic view of love. Although on a quick appraisal the two poems appear to be poles apart yet on deeper analysis one realises that whatever she believes about love seems to have been lived by Neruda. One could even say that Szymborska’s poem is a theoretical description while Neruda’s is the practical application of certain bitter aspects of love.
In fact the meeting ground of the two poems is that love has been portrayed as selfish. Just as the onion doesn’t care whether the humans’ lachrymal glands are stimulated while cutting it, love doesn’t care either of whom it hurts. Lovers are encapsulated in their own bubble universe and seem to float in their own ideal but selfish world. A similar thread runs through another one of Wislawa Szymborska’s works, True Love. She feels that love consumes the lives of the lovers making them shun the people and the world milling around them. Neruda has similar views on the issue. In other poems like The Morning is Full or So That you’ll Hear Me he depicts love that overwhelms and overpowers senses. In Leaning into the afternoon his love spiralled out of his control and he, like a desperate, drowning man, flounders for love. He says,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.” And later complains that the “night gallops”.
The reader gets the feeling that either the love is surging in a turbulent torrent or is like an uncontrollable and defiant runaway horse. This all-consuming and uncaring love is almost comparable to a wrathful Pagan God whose absolute power and frequent wrath lashes his loyal followers. He is not dependent on others and most importantly, he follows his own authority without any remorse or regret. The onion, too, is
“oniony on the inside
onionesque it appears
it follows its own daimonion
without our human tears”.
Love cannot be explained by scientific dimensions and philosophical theories. It has no substance and yet it is full of its own importance. It defies all rationale quite like the onion.
“The onion, now that’s something else
its innards don’t exist
nothing but pure onionhood”
If an onion is peeled it doesn’t lose its worth for there is another onion inside. It still has its ‘onionesque’- its still layered, coloured, pungent, and still an onion.
Inside it, there’s a smaller one
of undiminished worth.”
Love also exists in layers, each layer complete in itself and if shared only multiplies. After we finish peeling the onion the smell lingers on the hands—pungent and persistent. Similarly even if the lover is shunned, love lingers.
“your absent eyes
that move like the sea”
Neruda’s love loses neither its volume nor its depth despite her absence. It is whole and it is what it is. There are strings attached and yet if they snap and lovers suffer, love the almighty emotion, albeit in a different heart. Onions are the same. They have no real core. If you peel them, they are the same thing again. The layers are the onion and the onion is the layers. Szymborska likens the onion to a volcano—hollow yet potent.
“an internal inferno
the anathema of anatomy
in an onion there’s only onion
from its top to its toe”
Neruda has felt the same about love “There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,”
One could also look at his repetitiveness from a different angle. There is a repetitive sullenness to Neruda’s love. Unlike Szymborska’s tongue in cheek and indirect appraisal, he is stuck in his private and gloomy cocoon. His repetitive attempts to harness an elusive love can be seen in
“Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.” And again in
“Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that beats on your marine eyes.”
The reason for this lies in the last line. For Neruda the nature and life itself is connected to beloved. He cannot be the disinterested observer like Szymborska and cannot condone her view that the pain of love is part of the deal and might just be the beauty of it as an onion is just not an onion without causing the tears.
From their divergent standpoints emerges a contrast in the writing style of both the poets. Wislawa Szymborska has very unique style of coining words. To give the poem a rhythmic texture, she uses her “neologistic” skills to reframe words such as anonymous into “onionymous”. These coined words are in cadence with the theme of poem; relating an onion to love. The repetitive use of vowels in combination with the letter ‘n’ also adds melody and rhythm besides being a kind of an echo of ‘onion’.
“nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist
oniony on the inside
onionesque it appears
it follows its own daimonion
On the contrary, with the exception of the last two couplets of Neruda’s poem, the language used is prosaic and ordinary. The marine metaphor is also an over-exploited one in Neruda. The ‘lighthouse’ and ‘signals’ and ‘net’ are not just uninspiring but have been read in other love songs of his. The beauty however emerges when he creates a relation of time with his solitude. During the “highest blaze” the afternoon sun, his loneliness and his pain is also at its apex. But as night approaches in the last few lines, the anguish is reflected through serene images. Although he continues to express his pain by using distressing words such as “shadowy” and “blue tassels” the hot blaze turns into star light and shadows. His love moves from body to soul
“The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.
The night gallops in its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassels over land”
Furthermore, Szymborska’s poem flows on as it is not limited by the brevity of being a sonnet like Neruda’s is. She has used short stanzas each of which explain a unique similarity between an onion and love. She also has a tendency to explain in detail of what she wants to convey whereas with Neruda the reader has to guess the context. For example, in the third stanza she explains that the onion is made of layers and layers of itself and contains nothing more. And when peeled or cut, its worth is not mitigated. In doing so she uses redundant phrases such as “the second holds the third one and the third contains a fourth”. There is a tendency to drive home a point. But, this is what differentiates her from Neruda. She doesn’t want to leave it open for interpretation and wants the readers to think and understand the poem the way she does. This is very unlike Neruda. He just merely hints and lets the readers’ minds interpret and lets them play with the perspectives of the ideas. Interestingly Neruda too has written a poem titled “Ode to an Onion” where the beauty of the onion is described lyrically and even compared to Aphrodite’s and yet Neruda does not sublimate it as does Szymborska. The latter has immortalized onion by relating it to love but for Neruda the destiny of the onion is limited to be “Upon the table of the poor”. Neruda does not give it the potency of love or volcano; in fact he seems to be thanking onion saying that “You make us cry without hurting us.” For Neruda only love has the power to hurt and that is because it is out of the control of mere mortals and follows its own authority.
Both poems are beautifully written and present, and depict the authors’ views on love. They are distinctive in that Neruda expresses painful yet more commonly experienced aspects of love, while Szymborska talks about the pain of love in her own inimitable style wherein nothing is held sacred—not even love. But she does make us realise that try as we might we have no authority over the volcanic power of love. Neruda, who seems to have been there and done it, upholds what she seems to be theorizing about. We no longer wonder whether love follows its daimonion or not. If the two poets are to be believed the answer is “yes it does”.