With her 2003 collection Notes from the Divided Country, Suji ("Sue") Kwock Kim became the first Asian American to win the Walt Whitman Award of the American Academy of Poets. In this volume, Kim explores themes of family, nation (the title refers to Korea), isolation, community, emotion, and politics. While her poetic voice is influenced by her experience as an Asian American woman, she strives to write about universal human truths. She draws those truths from the strangled and war-torn history of her family and their native Korea. To add authenticity to her telling of history, she takes on the voices of her parents and ancestors. Kim's poems describe the horrors of war, the struggle to overcome extreme circumstances, and the pain of loss.
One of the poems in Notes from the Divided Country is "Monologue for an Onion." In this poem, an onion expresses its thoughts and feelings while a person goes about cutting it up. In the hands of other poets, this premise would be a setup for a humorous poem; in Kim's hands, it is serious and even disturbing. Exploring themes of appearance, essence, truth, and seeking, Kim finds an unlikely speaker in an onion. Because of this poem's accessibility and its unusual subject matter, it is appealing to students who are new to poetry. More advanced students will be rewarded by a close study of the poem that reveals its depth of style and content.
"Monologue for an Onion" is written in tristichs (three-line stanzas). The structure gives the poem a sense of order, although each stanza does not always contain a complete or self-contained thought. The lines often extend from one tristich to another. As "Monologue for an Onion" opens, the speaker is established to be an onion. It speaks in the first person to someone who is busily cutting it up. The onion tells the person, "I don't mean to make you cry." The onion then adds that it means the person no harm, and yet the person continues to peel its skin away. The onion cannot help but notice that this process of peeling away the skin and cutting up the onion's "flesh" brings tears to the person's eyes.
The onion says, "Poor deluded human: you seek my heart" (line 6). The onion believes that the person's act of peeling and cutting is a search for its heart, apparently not realizing that this is simply how people prepare onions for cooking or eating. The onion then tells the person to keep looking and peeling, but the person will find only more of the same layers as are on the outside. It says, "I am pure onion—pure union / Of outside and in, surface and secret core" (lines 8-9). This means that the onion knows that it is the same all the way to the center. It is not wearing a false exterior of any kind, and it is not keeping any secrets.
In the fourth stanza, the onion begins to express hostility and judgment toward the person. Because...
(The entire section is 570 words.)