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Exploring the Backlist: Appetite: Food as Metaphor

Happy Thanksgiving, readers! Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In this post, Genevieve H. whets our appetites by sampling the banquet of experiences in one of BOA's most delectable anthologies.

Wading into Human Experience in Appetite: Food as Metaphor

Hi! My name is Genevieve Hartman. I’m enjoying a gap year after my recent graduation from Houghton College, working as a substitute teacher and surrounding myself with books at BOA. I hope to be accepted into a graduate program in Fall 2020 to further study Creative Writing or English Literature.

In choosing a book from the BOA backlist, Appetite: Food as Metaphor was an obvious choice to highlight; it is full of poems that use food—something I love—to talk about fundamental human experiences—something I love to read about—and it features amazing poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton, and Emily Dickinson.

Appetite is divided into five sections: family, sexuality, oppression, death, and transformation. Using these sections, the editors present a cohesive and moving tribute to the ways in which human beings become hungry and are fed. The metaphors mentioned in the title are rich and extravagant, sprinkled throughout this collection with generosity, adding flavor and sometimes bitterness to the varied experiences that reach towards our shared spaces of humanity. The questions and ponderings of these sixty-two poets are both universal and unique, allowing readers to peer into the depths and pull from them sustenance, warmth, and understanding.

In the first section, “Soup, A Rising Fragrance: Family,” food is a way of joining people together, delving into the universal need to be nurtured by food, by community, and by nature. “Dandelion Greens” by Jane Flanders pays homage to the weed’s ability to nourish and simultaneously symbolize familial love:

“Eat them because they are good for you.
Eat them in joy, for the earth revives.
Eat them in remembrance of your grandmother…”

While humble fare, dandelion greens offer insight in a life of simplicity and care. Similarly, Linda Hogan’s “Potatoes,” recalls the hidden months of growth, where potatoes grew and flourished underground. The persistence of the potatoes is reflected in the harvesters, who remember past seasons and press towards the future and change, all the while reaping the bounty that the ground has to offer them.

Prior to eating, a person experiences hunger; thus “Pulp and Juice: Sexuality,” has a more complex relationship to food. The poems in this second section touch on sexual maturation and awakening, aphrodisiacs, meals shared with lovers, and desire. The fusion of these distinct yet related experiences appear in “Common Prayer” by Lynn Ungar. Here is something akin to religious experience—falling asleep together after a day of sharing life and food, spring unfolding alongside the couple’s desire. The speaker recalls:

“Placing the last chocolate in your mouth I whispered
‘This is my body, take and eat’
and we melted very slowly
on the earth’s tongue”.

The small act of feeding chocolate to a partner magnifies, becoming something more profound. By contrast, “Eggs” by Sharon Olds focuses solely on the speaker’s daughter’s impending puberty. The speaker remarks:

“…Next birthday she’s ten and then
it’s open season, no telling when
the bright crimson dot appears
like the sign on a fertilized yolk.”

Olds parallels the eating of eggs with the confusion and anguish that accompany menstruation and hormonal changes. Watching her daughter’s tastes change—at least partially fueled by a growing awareness of body image—with a mother’s wisdom, the speaker looks towards the challenges that lie ahead for both her and her daughter. Instead of offering solutions, the speaker instead observes her daughter “[wail] for her life,” accepting that hunger and hardship often go hand in hand with one another.

In the next section, “Beans Mostly: Oppression,” food and hunger begin to change, representing something more sinister than satisfaction or sexual desire—starvation and want. Whether it is food or human companionship, at some point, people all wrestle with emptiness, learning to cope with little or nothing. In Toi Derricotte’s “On Stopping Late in the Afternoon for Steamed Dumplings,” the speaker eats alone, at the wrong time for a meal, and feels the judgement of the restaurant workers. Whether real or imagined, the criticism is severe, and the speaker hurries to finish the meal and escape:

“The white dough burns—much too hot—yet,
I stick it in my mouth, quickly,
as if to destroy the evidence.
The waiter still watches.”

This poem discusses a lack of companionship and restraint rather than a lack of food. The pleasure of the food itself has been ruined by oppressive loneliness and harsh self-criticism.

The last two sections, “Fresh-Catch, Boned, and Skinned: Death” and “Heavenly Feast: Transformation” portray food’s relationship to the end of life and religious experience. Jane Kenyon’s “Eating the Cookies” asks readers to consider what comes next. After the death of a loved one, the mundane and painful task of clearing away their possessions must happen, and the speaker punctuates this burden by eating cookies sent by the deceased’s cousin from Maine. “There would be no more / parcels from Portland,” the speaker realizes, and it is these small and ordinary occurrences that sharpen the loss. The memory of last cookie to ever be sent, like the person who died, must be savored; this, Kenyon surmises, is the next step in the process of healing after a loved one’s death. “O Taste and See” by Denise Levertov begins, “The world is / not with us enough.” Evoking Biblical language, Levertov points to the transience of our lives. As Kenyon pondered the aftermath of death, Levertov keys into the time leading up to it—because life is short and death is inevitable, the fruits that life offers must be taken and tasted. They must be pronounced good and eaten, whether peaches and plums or love and despair. If the world is not with us enough, what is available must not be wasted, but cherished and grasped with both hands.

Through Appetite, we are offered wisdom into universal human truths. Each theme is a tributary that sweeps into a larger river of life, helping readers accept difficult circumstances with grace, weep in times of loss, and celebrate in times of plenty. Each poem taps into our deeply human appetite for love, for satisfaction, and for safety. We plant for ourselves, as Catalina Cariaga suggests in “Plantings”:

“food first,
and then, symbols
of prosperities

and birds
of paradise.”

Appetite: Food as Metaphor is available in the BOA Bookstore

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