When the brain and the belly are ‘burning clean,’ then at ‘every moment a new song comes out of the fire.’ This, from Rumi, in a short didactic poem called Fasting.

And so, having dwelt on one kind of deprivation last week, the deprivation of company, we move swiftly on another kind: the lack of sustenance and all it leads to. I promise that at some point I will take on a cheery theme in these posts, but for now, please bear with me. Better still, you could enter the spirit of things and read this just before lunch when the first pangs of hunger begin to bite.

Rumi’s tone is gently encouraging. When you fast, he says, ‘good habits gather like friends who want to help.’ It is as if, when transposed to a modern, everyday setting, Rumi is saying that fasting kindles a desire to read poetry, or write letters, or contemplate the purpose of life. Its tendencies are Good. Its associations, pure. It is the very opposite state of mind – active, enquiring – from the blank one associated with slumping onto the sofa in front of the tv with a pack of Doritos and a cheese dip.

Rumi is reassuring too. If you doubt your strength of will, or resolve, he says, they return in spades when you fast; ‘like soldiers appearing out of the ground, pennants flying above them.’ Friends gather, support rallies. Not least, you are rewarded for your hungering with a vision of Jesus’ table descending to meet you. This is the Eucharistic table, ‘Spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages’ – food that feeds the spirit and nourishes the soul. And presumably, the emptier the vessel, the more easily it may be filled.

This didactic poem set the tone I wanted this week: a whip-cracking tone of discipline and self-denial. I think the group was a little taken aback, as if this weeks ‘slimline’ readings amounted to giving with one hand while taking with the other. Or perhaps that’s just my conscience pricking me, reminding me that I have a certain fondness for didacticism. At any rate, everyone was good enough to let themselves be taken to a hungry place, a place where the whole point is to experience need but not satisfaction. Or at least, not the expected kind.

We would go to that difficult place together, step by step, I thought, figuring it would be interesting to see where people began peeling off, parting company with the flow of things, refusing to go to extremes.

Step one was Thomas Merton’s A Practical Programme for Monks, a poem set out as a series of rather stringent rules. Interestingly the regimen Merton describes is based around sitting at table, a time when monks come together to share a simple repast, a potato or a lemon in Merton’s rendering. The taking in of food is thus ritualized. Each monk has the same thing at the same time, like the food that is blessed at a Passover table. Like sacramental food. Meagre though these meals are, Merton is keen to tell us that they are sufficient:

Plenty of bread for everyone between prayers and the psalter: will you recite another?
Merci, and Miserere.
Always mind both the clock and the Abbot until eternity.

Pray and eat, says Merton. Pray and eat a little. Pray and give thanks. Pray and ask for mercy. Round and round the hours, under the watchful eye of the Abbot, who seems to represent the Order’s collective resolve.

Merton is coming from an interesting place. A Cistercian monk, Catholic mystic, and deep student of Buddhism, his spirituality was both practical and transcendental. His poem struck a deep chord with Cassie, who insisted on seeing fasting as a thing in itself and not merely as a prelude to feasting. Fasting is not about earning the right to indulge, but about learning that going without lets you appreciate that everything that exceeds sufficiency is special.

But what happens if you get stuck, like a broken record, on hunger? Become addicted to your perpetual yearnings? Start believing that even sufficiency is too much?

Frank Bidart’s poem Ellen West, about an anorexic woman whose sad story made headlines in America in the 1930s after she took a lethal dose of poison to end her torment, and at just 33. As I knew it would be, Bidart’s poem was hard going – the second step in my reading group’s journey to that difficult place where hunger is not answered (read: rewarded), the fast not relieved, the feast perpetually postponed.

In Bidart’s poem, Ellen has an ideal, she wants her body to be the image of her soul; ‘thin, all profile.’ And she will starve herself to attain it. Bidart’s narrative poem cuts back and forth between Ellen’s stream of consciousness and her doctors’ reports on the sorry state she’s brought herself to – a skeleton weighing just 92 pounds and wracked by vomiting and diahorea from excessive purging.

But it is Ellen’s voice that commands interest, whether she is relating watching an attractive couple in a restaurant feed each other tid bits from their plates – each holding out their fork for the other, with ‘pleased looks, indulgent smiles’ – or reflecting on how Maria Callas felt compelled to lose weight, as if her magnificent voice, ‘buried in flesh’ demanded liberation. The couple in the restaurant don’t touch, but Ellen confides that their foodie intimacy is more than she can take. It sickens her to watch them. As for Callas, who managed to lose 60 pounds in four months, Ellen says the gossip in Milan was that she had swallowed a tape worm. Not true, says our narrator: ‘The tapeworm was her soul…’

 ‘– How her soul, uncompromising,
insatiable,
            must have loved eating the flesh form her bones,
revealing this extraordinarily
mercurial: fragile, masterly creature…

The kind of weightless creature Ellen would like to be…. In the hospital Ellen writes, she keeps a diary, attempts poetry. She even tries her hand at friendship with another patient. But she can’t sustain any of it for very long because, like the Callas of her imagination, she too is being consumed by her parasitical soul. She can’t think about anything other than bread for days on end, even as she knows eating bread offers no solution.

 “…trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
is like trying to appease thirst
                                                      with ink.’

At the end of the poem Ellen’s doctors release her. They give up. They decide there are no therapeutic benefits to be gained from extending her confinement. Ellen has also made a decision. She too has given up. But before she goes, she spends a glorious day with her husband: she eats a good lunch, then has Easter eggs and chocolate creams for tea. She goes on a long walk, reads poetry, writes her husband a letter, before putting an end to the ‘refuser’ inside her.

This was a poem to feast on, if you’ll forgive the pun, because it is so wonderfully observed. But the group was a little muted in its response, perhaps because Ellen West presents such an emotional obstacle course. Looking back on the session, I think the group longed for a redemptive ending, an uplifting turn to material that is grim and difficult, and that allows for a re-writing of suffering as a lesson, a moral, a message, a purpose. No one was entirely confortable with Ellen West’s hunger being an end it itself.

Then someone had a thought. How about suicide as redemption?

It’s not as far reached as you might think. Consider that Bidart gave Ellen’s last hurray an Easter theme. On the third day she is home from hospital she is ‘as if transformed’ -her passage out of flesh and into spirit already underway. She has made her decision, so heaviness falls from her. She’s positively festive. She eats Easter eggs! And in the letter she leaves behind for her husband, she has become ‘the news’ (the Good news?)

Even now I am not sure that we read what Bidart intended, or if we gave him intentions he didn’t know he had. Either way, Ellen West is a fiendishly clever poem. Approach it with caution…And make sure there’s something in the larder.

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