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Poem: Stephen Dobyns, “Oatmeal Deluxe”

OATMEAL DELUXE

This morning, because the snow swirled deep
around my house, I made oatmeal for breakfast.
At first it was too runny so I added more oatmeal,
then it grew too thick so I added water.
Soon I had a lot of oatmeal. The radio
was playing Spanish music and I became
passionate: soon I had four pots of oatmeal.
I put them aside and started a new batch.
Soon I had eight pots. When the oatmeal cooled,
I began to roll it with my hands, making
small shapes: pigs and souvenir ashtrays. Then
I made a foot, then another, then a leg. Soon
I’d made a woamn out of oatmeal with freckles
and a cute nose and hair made from brown sugar
and naked except for a necklace of raisins.
She was five feet long and when she grew harder
I could move her arms and legs without them
falling off. But I didn’t touch her much -
she lay on the table – sometimes I’d touch her
with a spoon, sometimes I’d lick her in places
it wouldn’t show. She loooks like you, although
her hair is darker, but the smile is like yours,
and the eyes, although hers are closed. You say:
what has this to do with me? And I should say:
I want to make more women from Cream of Wheat.
But enough of such fantasy. You ask me
why I don’t love you, why you can’t
live with me. What can I tell you? If I
can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend,
what trouble could I make for you, a woman?

STEPHEN DOBYNS

from Heat Death (New York: Atheneum, 1980).
See also: Velocities: New and Selected Poems: 1966-1992 (Penguin, 1994).

Someday I want to do an anthology, maybe just a chapbook, of poems about varieties of porridge. There’s that classic of early American literature, “Hasty Pudding,” and Galway Kinnell’s poem on oatmeal, and I am sure there are more… Maybe an anthology on breakfast foods, with a section on porridges.

I really like Heat Death, the volume from which this poem comes. I think a big part of what I enjoy about these poems is Dobyns’ style, which is very intelligent and very poetic and crafted (in things like line breaks and word choice – all that) but at the same time reads so naturally, like prose, vernacular. It makes me think these would be interesting poems to teach to kids, to help them think about poetry in new ways – not as something alien, in form and content, but as no different really from the forms of speech and writing with which they are already familiar.

Language that has been shaped – a little – but mostly that has been rendered powerful through some subtle process. I might use Niedecker’s term to refer to it – “this condensery” – except that Dobyns’ language doesn’t seem that condensed. Like I said, it feels much more natural, much more vernacular. Though of course when you look closely the rhymes and rhythms and breaks all add up to real craft, hard work to make something simple.

Not perfect. Near the end, when the women says “what has this to do with me,” that diction is anything but natural. And I feel like the word “soon” recurs a bit too much, though the deadpan delivery of the first line in which it appears – “Soon I had a lot of oatmeal” – is one of the great moments in the poem. As is the line break here, which is like a moment of hesitation in a striptease:

sometimes I’d lick her in places
it wouldn’t show.

Overall, “Oatmeal Deluxe” has a kind of magical realist quality to it, starting off mundane – what could be more mundane than oatmeal? – but then descending, or ascending, into strangeness, before finally saying “enough of such fantasy” and coming clean on its intentions. It’s his way of saying “No” to a woman who loves him. How much better than “I like you – as a friend,” or “it’s not you, it’s me” is the ending:

If I / can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend, / what trouble could I make for you, a woman?

Filed under: Poetry

One Response

  1. [...] discussed another poem by Dobyns from this same volume earlier, and the two make an interesting pair. Where “Oatmeal” [...]

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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