Of Oatmeal and Amnion

Why is it that the people I think should live the longest because they are the best and the world needs them so badly….don’t?  Galway Kinnell was the first love of my life, poetically speaking.  When I was an undergrad, I got to meet him once, when he spoke at UNC-A, and he was humble and rough and beautiful and everything his poems said he ought to be….and how often does that happen?  He was a man among men and a poet among poets.

Galway Kinnell


I eat oatmeal for breakfast.

I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.

I eat it alone.

I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.

Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if

somebody eats it with you.

That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have

breakfast with.

Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.

Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal–porridge,

as he called it–with John Keats.

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him in: due to its glutinous

texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness

to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with

an imaginary companion,

and he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund

Spenser and John Milton.

Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as

wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.

Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the

“Ode to a Nightingale.”

He had a heck of a time finishing it–those were his words–“Oi’ad

a ‘eck of a toime,” he said, more or less, speaking through his porridge.

He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his


but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the stanzas,

and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they made

some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if they got it right.

An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through

a hole in the pocket.

He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,

and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a

Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay

itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move

forward with God’s reckless wobble.

He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about

the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas

of his own, but only made matters worse.

I would not have known about any of this but for my reluctance to eat

oatmeal alone.

When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”

He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words

lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.

He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there is

much of one.

But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started

on it, and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy

cells” and “Thou watchedst the last oozings hours by hours,” came to him while eating oatmeal alone.

I can see him–drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the

glimmering furrows, muttering–and it occurs to me:

maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.

I am aware that a baked potato is damp, slippery and

simultaneously gummy and crumbly,

and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me (Kinnell, 1995, pp. 37-38).


When one has lived a long time alone,
one wants to live again among men and women,
to return to that place where one’s ties with the humangalway-kinnell
broke, where the disquiet of death and now
also of history glimmers its firelight on faces,
where the gaze of the new baby looks past the gaze
of the great-granny, and where lovers speak,
on lips blowsy from kissing, that language
the same in each mouth, and like birds at daybreak
blether the song that is both earth’s and heaven’s,
until the sun has risen, and they stand
in a light of being united: kingdom come,
when one has lived a long time alone.

~Galway Kinnel (The last stanza from “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone”)

Parkinson’s Disease

Just one more, even more moving as I learn that our beloved Galway died of Leukemia:


While spoon-feeding him with one hand
she holds his hand with her other hand,
or rather lets it rest on top of his,
which is permanently clenched shut.
When he turns his head away, she reaches
around and puts in the spoonful blind.
He will not accept the next morsel
until he has completely chewed this one.
His bright squint tells her he finds
the shrimp she has just put in delicious.
Next to the voice and touch of those we love,
food may be our last pleasure on earth—
a man on death row takes his T-bone
in small bites and swishes each sip
of the jug wine around in his mouth,
tomorrow will be too late for them to jolt
this supper out of him. She strokes
his head very slowly, as if to cheer up
each separate discomfited hair sticking up
from its root in his stricken brain.
Standing behind him, she presses
her check to his, kisses his jowl,
and his eyes seem to stop seeing
and do nothing but emit light.
Could heaven be a time, after we are dead,
of remembering the knowledge
flesh had from flesh? The flesh
of his face is hard, perhaps
from years spent facing down others
until they fell back, and harder
from years of being himself faced down
and falling back in his turn, and harder still
from all the while frowning
and beaming and worrying and shouting
and probably letting go in rages.
His face softens into a kind
of quizzical wince, as if one
of the other animals were working at
getting the knack of the human smile.
When picking up a cookie he uses
both thumbtips to grip it
and push it against an index finger
to secure it so that he can lift it.
She takes him then to the bathroom,
where she lowers his pants and removes
the wet diaper and holds the spout of the bottle
to his old penis until he pisses all he can,
then puts on the fresh diaper and pulls up his pants.
When they come out, she is facing him,
walking backwards in front of him
and holding his hands, pulling him
when he stops, reminding him to step
when he forgets and starts to pitch forward.
She is leading her old father into the future
as far as they can go, and she is walking
him back into her childhood, where she stood
in bare feet on the toes of his shoes
and they foxtrotted on this same rug.
I watch them closely: she could be teaching him
the last steps that one day she may teach me.
At this moment, he glints and shines,
as if it will be only a small dislocation
for him to pass from this paradise into the next.

Kissing the Toad by Galway Kinnell

Somewhere this duskwww.richard-seaman.com

a girl puckers her mouth

and considers kissing the toad a boy has plucked

from the cornfield and hands

her with both hands;

rough and lichenous but for the immense ivory belly,

like those old entrepreneurs

sprawling on Mediterranean beaches,

with popped eyes,

it watches the girl who might kiss it,

pisses, quakes, tries

to make its smile wider:

to love on, oh yes, to love on.  –Galway Kinnell