Poetry Double Features #2
By Summer Farah
In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads. This month, Farah considers Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun and Hijra by Hala Alyan.
Some Are Always Hungry x Hijra
cw: disordered eating
In the fall of its release, I received many photos of Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry from friends perusing bookstores; they read, “Through the vehicle of recipe, butchery, and dinner table poems, the collection negotiates the myriad ways diasporic communities comfort and name themselves in other nations, as well as the ways cuisine is inextricably linked to occupation, transmission, and survival” on the descriptive copy and thought, this book is perfect for Summer.
They were right! I love it very much. I have always been fixated on food writing. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on food, specifically eating, in the poetry of Palestinian American women, with a focus on Hala Alyan’s Hijra. The thesis isn’t very good; I spent more time crying over poems than studying literary theory, and each time I made an argument, I wanted nothing more than to undo it. I often reflect on that year of writing and thinking, how it was a wonder I was able to finish that project at all, but I was so propelled by love and curiosity–I wanted to understand why the poems in Hijra inspired the feelings that they did.
When I tell my friend Helen about this month’s pairing, they suggest that the interest in food writing is related to a history of disordered eating; for me, at least, this tracks. For so long I carried harmful thoughts toward the act of eating, counted calories, and bargained with myself about what I was allowed to put in my body. Somehow, this aversion to eating turned into an obsession with food photography. I would scroll through Tumblr and Instagram for hours just looking at beautiful meals, wondering if I made something beautiful enough, too, I wouldn’t feel so guilty afterward. I wanted so badly to transform how I saw food.
It took a while to get to a place in which I felt healthy, recovered. Ultimately, intentionally unlearning fatphobia and understanding that the structures that produce eating disorders are intrinsically wrapped up in white supremacy was the most vital piece—nourishing your body is vital to building a better world, and bodies are neutral until they are not. But, repairing my relationship to food could not begin with theory. Where it did was poetry: I read and taught food poems, immersing myself in the myriad ways in which food was not the enemy. I wrote about my eating disorder and people I loved learned I was struggling; together, we grounded meals in the communal. I wrote about Palestine and treated ingredients like olive oil and black seeds as sacred as I was raised to treat them, and my pantry felt less cruel because of it. I craved watermelon after each verse likening it to blood.
Despite the months of studying Hijra, it has taken years to understand that I was so compelled by how Alyan wrote about food because of how unromantic and unappealing it was. In “Meals,” she writes: “The men steal clams from the market. / Savage longing, our mouths fill / with the spines of creatures slow enough to catch.” There was always grit and blood and dirt alongside the honey, mirroring my own mental hang-ups. And yet it was ancestral. And yet it was still essential.
In Some Are Always Hungry, women and the food they prepare become one. I was struck by the intensity of Yun’s writing—visceral and often harsh, but still inviting. I felt the tender curiosity of her speakers, the gentleness of the way the women in the poems communicate with each other alongside the violences committed upon and around them. I was overwhelmed by how in conversation it felt with Hijra. Of course, food and grandmothers and talk of war are not unique to any diasporic literatures, but their approaches are captivating—unromantic in their linking of food and diaspora, almost grotesque with their joining of the body with the earth, and so sharply writing of food as a way into generational memory. In both of these collections, food is transformative, and I owe my recovery to those moments of transformation.
My favorite poem in Hijra is titled “Seham.” Alyan writes, “Sit and I’ll tell you of my father’s prayer rug, / dark as plums with yellow borders…Here, / have some stew, taste June in the steam.” And later, “We fed / our daughters until they grew / redwoods and oak trees instead of hearts.”
In “My Grandmother Thinks of Love while Steeping Tea,” Yun writes,
Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey
pull the thumb of ginger into your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste
your inheritance. The gunpowder,
These poems feel like sisters; each stanza two lines, rhythmic, deliciously descriptive and mythic in how they move from taste to history and back so effortlessly. I first read Hijra in 2017, and five years later I still think about “taste June in the steam;” what a momentous feeling it was, to read “I mean for you to taste / your inheritance” and find those connections across diasporas.
Both poets work in the speculative, but the “I” features far more richly in Yun’s work; her speakers are close, moving through time and persona in their witnessing. The poems “Passage, 1951,” “Bone Soup, 1951,” and “Diptych of Girl in 1953” do this work most explicitly, but I love the way these poems build to “I Revisit Myself in 1996;” I am guilty of the conflation of speaker and poet, and I find these poems a challenge to that inclination. Critically, I know the “I” in the period-piece-esque poems are not the poet who is around my age, they are a Speaker, and the “I” is a device as much as the food. The attention to this conflation feels so prominent in “I Revisit Myself in 1996,” with the line “I am a child. I live / closer to birth than death. / Sometimes I am a mother.” I love the grounding work of the titles with the year, a stability that is undone by the poems themselves; the temporalities are not contained within the “I,” making so much of the mythic work. Each of these poems engages with the matrilineal—the speakers embody their inheritance time and time again.
While Some are Always Hungry’s mythic tone comes from the speculative movement of the “I,” the lexicon in Hijra hinges on the use of “We” and “our;” the collective is always moving together or looking back. The phrase “our daughters” repeats throughout Hijra; “we raised our daughters on fog and honey” from “Before the Revolt,” the line mentioned earlier in “Seham,” “gave birth / to our daughters in caves” from the title poem “Hijra.” Daughterhood is a theme realized so wonderfully in the poem “Asking for the Daughter.” It maintains distance, the “we” and the “our” never becoming “I.” Instead, the poem’s subject is referred to only through “she” and her role as “daughter;” Alyan creates an archetype of Arab daughterhood, writing: “Because she eats fruit with dirt and lime salt…Because moon. Because ruin. Because a woman / who knows her deliverance, her mouth a sea / of sharks trapped in coral.” The daughter, an answer to an unknown question.
I love reading this alongside Yun’s “The Daughter Transmorphic,” with lines like “What the sap waters, / grows to a city,” and “Why must all / tired stories start / with an exit of the mother?” that, too, feel like a thematic build. There’s an elegance to this poem, one stanza with very even lines; the descriptions are less grotesque than we’ve seen before, almost halfway through the collection. It ends, “Flip the page. Gone / is the matriarch.” Perhaps where the content of “Asking for the Daughter,” is a justification for the question, “The Daughter Transmorphic” is the answer to its body’s conclusion. I think again of “Seham,” “We fed / our daughters until they grew / redwoods and oak trees instead of hearts,” of daughters, and all of their capacity for transformation.
I struggle to assign a reading order for this month’s pairing. I find that the collections continually bring out something different in each other, almost convincing me I could read just these two books on an endless loop for months and still be sustained by discovery. Yun’s meals make Alyan’s feasting more prominent, and so I think to begin with Some are Always Hungry. But, Alyan’s daughter poems make the role more present in Yun’s matrilineal narratives, so you could go with Hijra first, too. The marketplace as a site of discovery and visibility of gender roles in and out of war is a feature of both, and so I am almost tempted to switch books between poems. Maybe this struggle comes from my own journey with eating, the nonlinearity of healing; how could I assign an order to the tools in my narrative full of dips and departures? I want to return to “Seham” once again, that beauty of daughters raised to become the Earth. For a people displaced, rejoining the land you were severed from—what is a more beautiful ending than that? There, though, it is not as hopeful as I want it to be. Some Are Always Hungry begins with “All Female,” setting up the conflation of women’s bodies and the food we eat right at the start. It ends on a prayer:
If our feast ever happens,
if time has not misplaced us,
may these girls rise violet
from the pot
untangled their legs
from perilla and leek
and make for the sea
with their limbs in their teeth.
For the last time, I consider the word transformation. The poem begins with the violence of the parallels between human women and female animals, what is always consumed, and ends on a plea. That connection, between body and earth, does not have to be violence. There is a necessity to this hunger. It can transform, and it can return us home.
Buy the collections:
Some Are Always Hungry from University of Nebraska Press
Hijra from Southern Illinois University Press