Poem of the Week | April 14, 2020
Caitlin Cowan “Eating Alone”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Eating Alone” by Caitlin Cowan!
Born and raised in the Midwest, Caitlin Cowan’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, THRUSH Poetry Journal, New Ohio Review, Pleiades, SmokeLong Quarterly, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. A finalist for the Levis Prize in Poetry and a semifinalist for the Boston Discovery Poetry Contest, she has won the Littoral Press Poetry Prize, the Mississippi Review Prize, and an Avery Hopwood Award. Ilya Kaminsky also selected her poem, “Flight Plan,” to win the Ron McFarland Prize for Poetry. Her work has received support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center. She holds a PhD in English and has taught writing at the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University, and Interlochen Center for the Arts. She works, travels, and teaches for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan, where she played violin and traveled with the International Youth Symphony Orchestra in the early 2000s. Find her at caitlincowan.com.
A man ate breakfast at work: every morning for 35 years Dal asked my grandfather if he wanted some cereal before shift. J’eat jet? he’d say. And every morning for 35 years my grandfather said, Yeah, I’m ok. Each day the same. The story is one I know well. Dal ate alone in that bald break room day after decade: it took grit. Like sugar, solitude can’t sustain us.
A man who eats breakfast at work has no one to eat with. Dal died ages ago, and this is what my grandfather regrets: never sharing Frosted Flakes with him on a single Motor City morning. J’eat jet? This is his pain. All set, today. He clocked in, let Dal’s offer pass over him, a benediction, then set to work on something like six thousand sterile mornings—the taste of engine oil on his tongue. In college, I hear it come from my professor’s mouth: j’eat jet, a prime example of Midwest elision. I can taste it. It’s kind of like spoiled cream.
A man eating breakfast at work ain’t ashamed, hoping to bend low over a bowl of milk and wheat with the men he knows better each day. Fixing my first meal in the apartment with only my name on the lease, though I never knew him, I think of Dal as my hands tremble to lift a dish. I can’t decide whether to rush or linger. J’eat jet? I say to myself. I have tried to figure out what to do with my grandfather’s regret. I think I’ll eat it with a spoon.
This poem was born from a story that my grandfather, Keith, has told me many times. Sometimes he told it and laughed, but as I got older, I began to sense a note of regret in his retellings. Then, one day, he said something like I should have just sat down and had some cereal with him. It was painful, that confirmation of my own inkling about the weight of the past. I tried not to think about it for a long time, but in recent years I’ve tried to actively write into the experiences and stories that are most bewildering and difficult to me. This is where the magic really is. Metaphor, for me, is similarly magical, and I think that poetry is always engaging in an act of metaphor even when it works in a narrative mode. I wrote a version of this poem long ago that neglected to make such a metaphorical move, relating once instance of eating alone to another. It was only after weathering a divorce and spending more time eating alone than I already had as an only child that I was able to make a deeper connection.
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