Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

North and South Korea

"Monologue for an Onion" is included in Kim's Notes from the Divided Country. The title refers to Korea, from which Kim's family originally came. Since the end of World War II, Korea has been divided into two separate countries, North Korea and South Korea. When the two countries were formed, the Soviet Union occupied the north and the United States occupied the south. In 1950, tensions about political legitimacy between the two countries reached a head when the Korean War erupted. The war between the Communist-controlled north and the United Nations-supported south went on for three years, until an armistice was signed in 1953. North Korea continued to be governed by the Communist leader Kim Il Sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994. Upon his death, his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, assumed leadership of the country.

After the Korean War, South Korea struggled to secure its political stability, enduring a number of rulers, governments, and coups. In 1987, a more democratic form of government was established with the election of a president. During the 1990s, South Korea grew into a major economy. Despite some setbacks, most notably the Asian financial crisis of 1997, South Korea is, in the early twenty-first century, a stable democracy with a healthy economy.

Although tentative efforts have been made to reunify North and South Korea (beginning with a summit in 2000), it does not seem feasible. Relations between the two nations have grown less hostile, but concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities made South Korea, and other nations of the world, cautious. In 2005, North...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)


Kim interjects irony in "Monologue for an Onion" to illustrate the human being's struggle with truth. The onion points out ironies in the person's motives and behavior. For example, the onion notes that while the person peels, cuts, and chops at the onion to get to its heart ("Poor deluded human: you seek my heart"), it is really the person's own heart that the chopper so desperately seeks. The person cutting the onion strives to find the center of something, even if it is just an onion, because the person lacks a center but does not realize it. The onion explains, "And at your inmost circle, what? A core that is / Not one. Poor fool, you are divided at the heart, / Lost in its maze of chambers, blood, and love."

The onion also points out that the person, after peeling and cutting the onion, is the one who is "in pieces." Having cut the onion, left its pieces of skin on the counter, and forced out its juices, the person is now covered in the smell, taste, and feel of the onion. Further, the onion adds, in trying to change the onion into what the person wanted, the person ended up being the one who was changed. This is another instance of irony.

The onion fails to notice the irony of its own condition. It claims that it is not guilty of having an exterior different from its interior and that peeling away its layers will only reveal more of the same layers. In other words, its argument goes, the person should stop peeling and cutting altogether, because there is no more truth in the middle of the onion than there is on its outside. The momentum of the poem, however, disproves this. As the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


Bidart, Frank, "Editor's Shelf," in Ploughshares, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 2003, p. 223.

Burns, Robert, "Man Was Made to Mourn," in The Works of Robert Burns, Wordsworth Editions, 1994, p. 112.

Kim, Suji Kwock, "Monologue for an Onion," in Notes from the Divided Country, Louisiana State University Press, 2003, pp. 51-52.

Muske-Dukes, Carol, "Poet's Corner," in the Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003, Section R, p. 17.

Schroeder, Amy, Review of Notes from a [sic] Divided Country, in the Georgia Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 198-99.

Wordsworth, William, "The Tables Turned," in Lyrical Ballads, edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Methuen, 1971, p. 106.

Further Reading

Doran, Geri, Resin: Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Doran's collection is the 2004 winner of the Walt Whitman Award and contains poems of grief, struggle, and perseverance. She visits the devastation of such places as Chechnya and Rwanda, bringing the pain of modern history to her poetry.

Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women's America: Refocusing the Past, Oxford University Press, 2003.

In this widely consulted anthology of women's history in America, Kerber and De Hart offer almost one hundred essays...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

  • Write a companion poem for "Monologue for an Onion" that presents the other side of the story. What are the thoughts and intentions of the person who is peeling and cutting the onion? Are the tears merely the result of cutting the onion, or do you imagine something else going on in the person's mind?
  • What characteristics of an onion make it a good choice for Kim's poem? Can you think of anything else that would have worked? Organize your thoughts on these questions and prepare a lesson for a poetry workshop about choosing suitable subject matter for poetry.
  • Throughout "Monologue for an Onion," Kim introduces startling and sometimes violent imagery. Look for pictures from magazines, newspapers, and books to create a slideshow or PowerPoint presentation, combining the text of the poem with visual images to bring it to life. If you are artistically inclined, you may include original drawings, but your artwork should not make up more than half of the project.
  • Research the history of Korea, with particular attention to the division of North Korea and South Korea. Be sure to read about the Korean War, the political struggles in both nations, and the cultural consistencies and differences. Take what you know and interpret the poem as a political piece. Write an essay about the role of literature as a reflection of a nation's history, using this poem as your primary example. You may include other works but only to illustrate...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

  • Edited by Marilyn Chin and Victoria Chang, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (2004) includes not just the work of Kim but also the work of other young Asian American poets.
  • O Taste and See: Food Poems (2003) is edited by David Lee Garrison and Terry Hermsen. This anthology is a collection of poems about food and its meaning, rituals, and roles in everyday life.
  • The Asian American journalist Helen Zia shares her personal memories and her research of Asian American history in Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (2001). With this book, Zia hopes to fill in the gaps in American history and give Asian Americans better insight into the experiences of their forebears.
  • Amy Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), is the story of a Chinese woman, Winnie, and her strained relationship with her American-born daughter. As the novel unfolds, Winnie reveals the terrible struggles of her past in China and how she overcame them.

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