Valentine – Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
Have you ever read something and immediately thought what on earth is happening here? Well, for me, this one is one of those moments. At first reading, knowing Duffy’s penchant for the negative images in life [see Salome] I am led to think she is pulling the idea of love apart, but you never know, she might be being more literal than usual here and making us think in terms of different images just what we expect being in love to be like.
Valentine’s Day is one of those days when we can lose our minds; buying cards, chocolates, roses for someone we admire, or love. It can be for the one closest to us, or it can be just someone we admire from afar who gets those roses or wine. It is a commercial nonsense in reality and I for one choose not to opt into that loss of half my bank account just for that day to be a happy one. If I cannot give my lover a good day on that day or on any other day of the year, then I do not deserve her in my life.
So when I see someone putting pen to paper like this and saying that she would not give out a Valentine, ether in card, or message, or sweeties, then I applaud, especially when I see her bring in the image of the onion.
She says she would not buy “a red rose or a satin heart” but instead would provide at least one gift, the gift of “an onion.” Now that is a statement indeed. How many of us think ooooh, stinky onion, so therefore she means he stinks? As a lover, or maybe even really, as if she is saying he is useless. That is, if indeed it is referencing a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’ for it is one of those poems that can do both.
She then delights in the torture of adding insult to injury by describing what the onion is and does and makes us think of how these attributes can be given to the person receiving the poem. She says that an onion is “a moon wrapped in brown paper” which is all well and good and hints at the fact that the glories of the moon can only be seen at night. If the same is true of her lover then her lover is not the best one out there. This onion “promises light like the careful undressing of love,” like the layers of love that can be revealed one by one.
Years ago now, my wife and I went to see a play at the Liverpool Playhouse in the UK, with Pete Postlethwaite starring as Scaramouche Jones, a clown who wore seven faces and the idea of the show, a one man acting tour de force as well, was that he had finished his shift and one by one, took off each part of his face; make up, fake nose etc and spoke to the audience to reveal his inmost self. It was a most illuminating experience, seeing him reveal a bit of his humanity step by step. What Duffy is suggesting here is that in this poem, the image of the onion is acting in the same way. It is a vegetable with layers.
A little like Donkey and Shrek, who discuss the self same thing in their adventures, an onion has so many layers and so does love. Could Duffy be saying therefore, that her love for her lover is one that has so many layers and that a mere card or a box of chocolates is so one dimensional that it borders on boredom with a person, or a degree of love that is lacking in the relationship? Perhaps, this might be the case, for there is a chance that what she puts next reveals why she uses such an image in this poem. “Here,” she says, “It will blind you with tears like a lover.” This use of the simile is effective because we are thinking of the onion and how it makes us cry. Love does that doesn’t it? Love is so many good things that makes us rejoice, but love can also make us cry floods of tears when things go wrong.
Duffy adds that “it will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief,” which is a fantastic image when you think about it. Love has the power to make us think we are one thing when we are not and when we look in the mirror, hopefully seeing the truth of what lies there before us, what we see when love fails is a jibbering mess, a wobbling strawberry jelly with blancmange on top that is unsteady, unsure of itself and wobbling all over the place. Love, therefore, to Duffy, is a lie. Duffy then inserts something that is almost a disclaimer for she says “I am trying to be truthful.” Is this a point where she says hang on, I am being honest here. I am laying my heart on the line. This is why I do not go in for all this Valentine’s Day rubbish? If so, then she is making the reader, who by now is either smirking or laughing their butt off at the image of the stinky onion, rethink immediately because she is bringing them [and us] back round to sensible normal thinking by saying she is not messing about.
“Not a cute card or a kissogram,” she adds, as if almost to add an extra thought. None of that nonsense will come from her. This lady is past all that rubbish; sentimentality gone wrong in her opinion. No, this will not be her way, both now or in the future. This is a woman who is intent on stepping outside the boundaries of the normal existence and understanding of love and someone who likes to do things her way. “I give you an onion,” she adds, because “its fierce kiss will stay on your lips, possessive and faithful
as we are, for as long as we are.” It is a great image, the one of the onion [or the kiss] being something that lasts on the lips of the recipient. When we have onions, if we add them to a cheese sandwich and they are raw, boy can they make our mouths stink. I love them, personally, but they do have that tendency to affect our breath after we have had them. So too, she says, does love linger on us, like a kiss that will never be forgotten.
“Take it” she says, as if the receiver needs second bidding. A kiss is a kiss. It is something between two people that when right, when done right, is utterly glorious and enticing. But Duffy is saying that this onion now represents the love that she has for her lover, in the form of an onion whose “platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring” as it gets closer to the centre and in whose hands, if handled wrongly, can be “lethal” enough to cause the utmost damage. Love is patient and kind, as the saying goes, but love can also be nasty and brutish and short. If you want to know what I mean, look up the poem Caritas Est, on this website. It will make you rethink your thoughts on love and was written by a fourteen year old!
An onion has an odour that is unmistakable and “its scent will cling to your fingers” as much as “cling to your knife” when you wield it, so what Duffy is doing is saying that she loves her lover, and she does so with an honesty of love that is pure and innocent, but realistic as well. She does not need the garbage that is farmed onto us all every January in the shops to show her lover her love. No. Garbage like that is pointless, she is saying and should be avoided, for love is the most glorious thing in the world and it should never be mishandled.