The Squinch – An Architecture of Appetite in Poems by Hass and Kinnell

August Blackberries

August Blackberries



I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths and squinched,
many-lettered, on-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Galway Kinnell from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980

I first knew the word squinch defined as an architectural feature that helps hold up a structural component like a dome over a square building. And I confirmed this looking my real not virtual dictionary! The Oxford! But no matter! What a juicy word. And brought so wonderfully and deliciously to life by American poets Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014) and Robert Hass (1941 – ). But by using squinch in a very different way. Squinch, as in compressing or closing something.

And beyond the delight in the mouth of the word squinch, Kinnell’s poem has particular significance for me. Earlier this summer at a poetry retreat in Italy, Kim Addonizio, the retreat leader, recited Kinnell’s poem from memory. Better still she recited it during a festival in the village of Il Castello Di Valle Di Nera in Umbria. What makes the location even more relevant is that this village was devastated by the 1997 earthquake and completely rebuilt! Last week’s equally devastating earthquake to the north of this area brought the reality of this into much clearer focus. Eerie for me as well. I was in Italy during the 1997 quake and just missed the most recent one by six weeks.

Kinnell’s poem has other echoes for me. Not September but now in August is when our blackberries here on Vancouver Island reach their peak! And other echoes as well. In a previous relationship blackberry picking was a loved occupation in late summer. And from that came this poem in response to some difficult times a few years before the relationship ended:

Harvest Storm

His love: all blackberries;
the moment taste erupts
from one fruit saved,
sucked in, from the pail.
Now her taste invades him,
and the rain, as if waiting
for this first bite, starts
again. He is spring born
out of season. He promises,
to leave less in the pail 
and more of her and the rain,
inside his dry mouth.

Richard Osler, unpublished

I had forgotten this poem. Thanks to Kinnell and his squinches it came back to me. This call to presence. A presence that is so evidence and palpable in Hass’s poem appropriately called Happiness! A poem made so alive by paying attention. And ended with such delight thanks to eyes squinched up like bats!


Because yesterday morning from the steamy window
we saw a pair of red foxes across the creek
eating the last windfall apples in the rain -
they looked up at us with their green eyes
long enough to symbolize the wakefulness of living things
and then went back to eating -
and because this morning
when she went into the gazebo with her black pen and yellow pad
to coax an inquisitive soul
from what she thinks of as the reluctance of matter,
I drove into town to drink tea in the cafe
and write notes in a journal – mist rose from the bay
like the luminous and indefinite aspect of intention,
and a small flock of tundra swans
for the second winter in a row were feeding on new grass
in the soaked fields; they symbolize mystery, I suppose,
they are also called whistling swans, are very white,
and their eyes are black -
and because the tea steamed in front of me,
and the notebook, turned to a new page,
was blank except for a faint blue idea of order,
I wrote: happiness! it is December, very cold,
we woke early this morning,
and lay in bed kissing,
our eyes squinched up like bats.

Robert Hass from Sun Under Wood, The Ecco Press, 1996


  1. Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Hi Richard, Beautiful words this overcast Sunday morning, Galway Kinnell’s words lift my spirit, my taste buds savouring the sweet nectar of berries. Thank you for your poems, for your website! Joan

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Joan: So pleased we have this way of being in touch! And so meaningful , as I tap my words against the wall of internet ether, to hear a responding knock come back! I will be in Calgary December 1st to 4th for a Poetry as Prayer retreat (2nd to 3rd). Hope I might see you there!

  3. Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    As soon as you mentioned the word “squinched,” I thought of “Happiness” by Robert Hass and there it was. It’s my favourite of his.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Hi M-A: So glad I included Hass’s squinch! Such a chewy word as the American poet Scott Cairns is fond of saying! Hope you are well! Much love,


  5. Barbara Black
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Ah, “the reluctance of matter.” I always love to read Hass. Thank you. And, I too, have a fondness for blackberries, prickles and all. Thank you for both blackberry poems. And may I add the word “drupelet” to your personal dictionary to describe all those deep purple globes of flavour that constitute a single blackberry?

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Dear Barabara: Will take on “drupelet”! Without a squinch! All best, Richard

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