The Hunger Essay

Claudia Cortese

  1. Catherine of Siena ladled the pus from a cancer patient's sore, lifted the spoon to her lips and sipped till the desire for food spasmed from her stomach.

    This is not poetry. This is what she did.
  1. The Duchess of Windsor said, One can never be too rich. One can never be too thin. Marie Bashkirtsev wrote in 1887 that TB gives me an air of languor that is very becoming, and Carrie Lorig says, My desire to be the perfect girlstudent / to prove I was not a guest / a thief / to prove . . . I would do anything to feel alive in language.

  2. Crumbs rainbow the corners of my lips / Fruity Pebbles at midnight I binge till I pass out /  wake early for class /  study stars write poems learn what Sartre means when he says existential dread / return late / I am never home / in my body / I must prove I am brilliant / bodiless / soul ghosting the old books / the light of the mind / I am fat which is to say / invisible / at 200 pounds / so why not whipped cream atop strawberry gel atop fried Bisquick
  1. What I mean is history gives form to guilt
                    so of course Catherine chewed fennel
    and spit herb's sour spittle into a cup
                      of course she walked so fast her confessor couldn't keep pace

    though she was to use the cliché all skin and bone there's a medical
                      reason I'm sure for the burst of energy so commonly seen in the uneating
    but I reason the closer Catherine came to bodiless
                    the more she jangled with joy.

  2. God hardly notices when we walk away but I bet he watched Catherine
    force an olive twig down her throat watery gastrics

    dribbling her chin I bet he watched her pull the plank
    she'd hidden beneath her pillow beat each leg

    till splintered raw as chicken skin the ritual
    so pornographic it quivered the air in heaven one girl

    on the floor with three twigs disappearing into the darkness
    her body grew itself around the minerals

    stripped to nerves in the pulpy mess of her mouth.
  1. If Catherine drinks nothing,
                    her mother will have another daughter

    who can give her the grandson she never will.
                    If Catherine does not sleep, her father will live

    to see this child grow.
  1. Some theories on the origins of the cult of thinness
    include: 1) It makes women frail and weak.
    2) It's the logical conclusion of food's abundance in the West.
    3) The way dresses hang in clean lines on the tall
    and breast-less makes for the highest fashion.
    However, to say all this is to ignore that Catherine's
    not eating was a way to gain power: God
    did her bidding: in exchange she gave him her body.
  1. The glass-shaking laughter that comes from deep
    in the belly and the way sweat sheens chubby
    cheeks are almost obscene in their health. If, 
    as Sontag says, skin is the outer garment
    of the body and illness the interior décor,
    what could be more spangled more camera-flash 
    dazzling than this disease.
  1. The female saint must destroy
    that which makes the world.


I wanted abundance of snowy flesh / to become sexless as a field / don't think it wasn't holy / yes gluttony is a sin but sitting on the floor eating Cheerios reading Plath dunking a donut in a triple shot vanilla latte while diagramming a sentence using the post-structuralist method the professor drew on the board in elegant scaffolding akin to a cathedral's steel glinting in Mediterranean light was holy / the mind was holy / learning was holy / getting A's in each class was holy / conjugating essere and avere was holy / not like the morning I snorted coke off a toilet in Phoenix or when I stole a nitrous tank from a dentist's office with two dudes I'd just met or the night drug-thin me danced to happy hardcore clavicles shining through my sweat-soaked t-shirt how I kissed and sucked my way across the club bathrooms of America / writing these sentences I want to hit backspace / delete the confession / but I need you to see my penance as a way to reach a splendor most holy most unsexy most me-in-the-library-alone-with-my-books-my-ideas-my-untouchable-body—

  1. The major distinction between male and female saints . . . is based on their differing perceptions on the locus of sin. For women evil was internal and the Devil a domestic parasitic force, whereas for men sin was an impure response to external stimulus.

  2. Imagine believing that any evil can slip through your anus your mouth-hole: do you feel dirty: how will you exorcise what's already worming its way inside you.

  3. Baby Catherine sucked thick milk from her mother's tit while her twin drank the watery liquid a wet nurse squeezed into her mouth among many mouths. I imagine Catherine's unbearable guilt for fattening while her twin starved and write,

                I clasped mother's breast and drank
                                while you withered away—

              can you forgive me? I drink one handful of water a day,
                               have no meat, press my knees in the wood floor

              till dawn.
  1. I watch season 3 of Orange is the New Black at my MacBook while eating cinnamon swirl ice cream. The scene in which the inmates look at a lingerie catalog begins; Cindy says, There are hella ways for a Black woman to be beautiful, but a white girl—she's just gotta be skinny, and I remember the day I taught a class on gendered norms at a predominantly Black college. During the discussion, a female student said, If a girl be looking cute with some nice shoes and her hair all done up and her makeup perfect and shit, it doesn't matter if she's a bit thick. I had only heard chubby or fat, never thick, and I felt moved by the generosity of what she said. Anorexia exists in all communities and when psychologist Rudolph Bell says that the typical anorexic girl comes from a two-parent family of . . . upper-middle-class status, he ignores the many studies that show eating disorders are found among all demographics, and yet Cindy is right about whiteness—an abundance of body reveals abundance of food of sex of hunger: it's the skin saying Fuck you, and when poet Monica McClure announces, I want to be so skinny / people ask me if I am dying, she means she'd rather be almost-nothing than admit her failures.


To disappear into nothingness or disappear

into too-much-ness: the bone girl and the fat girl

seek the same erasure.

  1. The wages of a smallroom with a desk and a lamp
    are not eating
    The wages of a Word file with fragments saved on a desktop
    are not eating
    The wages of art
    are not eating
    The wages of sin
    are not eating
    The wages of power
    are not eating
    The wages of sex
    are not eating
    The wages of body
    The wages of body
    The wages of body
  1. Catherine bargains—               If I do not eat, dear twin,                                                                                                                                                  we will be unborn and thus 

                                                              unbroken, I'll drift through the window,
                                                              we'll press ourselves together.

Texts explored while writing this piece:

Rudolph Bell's Holy Anorexia (University of Chicago Press, 1987)

Carrie Lorig's "The Intensity of The Reader: Reading as a Guest / a Thief in the Classroom / in the Wreckage" (VIDA: Women in Literary Arts website, 2015)

Monica McClure's Tender Data (Birds, LLC; 2015)

Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor (Picador, 1977)