Why Eating Matters

When I teach my Northern BC Literature course at UNBC, I always like to have a book or two that come from the North, but are not about the place— they don’t refer to place names or landscape or moose and pine trees.

Kara-lee MacDonald’s book of poetry Eating Matters falls into this category and will challenge my students with its lack of regional flavour. Instead of locating itself in place, this book very much locates itself in a body, a lived body that faces a psychological-cultural challenge that many young women face across the globe. I would argue that this is an important part of the place we call northern BC—the bodies that live and hurt and thrive here.

The book is about eating disorders, specifically bulimia and anorexia, and it explores multiple aspects of the narrator’s experience with the condition. Using a variety of poetic strategies, MacDonald tests and prods all the intensely complicated influences and effects of living with the disorders. I don’t think there is another art form that could access the profoundly personal yet symbolically loaded nuances of the experiences MacDonald portrays.

The poems range from narrative to imagist to list poems to surreal. And they don’t pull any punches; these are not pretty poems—they are about internal conflicts, purging (vomiting), bingeing and the very real dangers of the condition. Eating disorders have one of the highest death rates of any mental illness: “i died of complications / related to voluntary emesis.” No kidding. So in some ways this book is a battle for survival in very real ways. In that context even the book’s humorous aspects have an edge:

 

if I were a

bird, no one

would judge

me for

regurgitating.

 

The poems are often bluntly descriptive—they get to the gritty physicality of the impulses: “chocolate doesn’t taste as good coming up, globs together like clay.”

In the wry, painful piece “Baking for Bulimics,” the push-pull of rationalization and delusion is played out and leaves the reader emotionally exhausted. In another, a bathroom scale is animated and given a variety of social roles and vicious personalities.

MacDonald’s hope is to educate (not in a didactic way) and help other young women, giving them tools to survive the ordeal.

“It is a way to gain knowledge on a subject (readers) either have no experience with or very little real information,” she writes in an email. “On the other hand, and I’ve told you this before, my perfect situation is one where someone reads it and is able to use that text to help them understand their own situation. That is, in a more personal way.”

There is a definite sense of collective experience, a call out to others to share experiences and ask why “we want to carve ourselves into intricate beings.” The book’s final piece is a warped dedication to those who contributed to the mental illness:

to the elementary school boys who called me a ‘squaw’ and mocked my developing breasts

to my teenage friend who bragged about her flat stomach while pinching my ‘kangaroo pouch’

to the kids who complimented my cocaine physique

to the liquor store customer who asked if i had put on weight

to emaciated images of kate moss in vanity fair

to men who think a smile is an invitation for physical contact

 

It is a figurative and literal F-you to the aspects of our culture that lead women to mental illness. It is a standing up to the status quo of misogyny-drenched culture. It is powerful work MacDonald accomplishes, work that is reminiscent of poet and feminist Adrienne Rich:

“Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”

In my mind, poetry is about new ways of knowing and MacDonald’s book contains both new knowledge and, through the use of complicated poetic devices, a new way of thinking about female identity and the experience of eating disorders in contemporary society.