The Poetry Project

Midwinter Hunger

Elena Gomez

Midwinter Hunger

Nobody knew better than Bernadette Mayer that in poetry, temporal constraint can extend the possibilities of language, thought and the experience of being-in-world. She was able to show us over a lifetime of work, but especially in Midwinter Day, how a poem composed entirely in a fragment of time offers complex layers generative to producing meaning within a broader set of social and geopolitical relations. Mayer’s poetry is generative for reader and interpreter; it contains a trove of gifts that reveal themselves with renewed attention, often thanks to Mayer’s own mode of attention. In Midwinter Day, she shows us that the minutiae of the everyday—including the dynamics of hunger and humiliation for most of the world’s people—provides tinder for the spark of revolt. I’m going to depart a little from the straightforward, and obviously true, reading of Midwinter Day as a domestic poem of a woman caretaking for her family in Lenox, MA, and thinking about poems and dreams and needing money to live. Instead, I want to emphasize how Mayer’s poem fixates on food and the news to mark a world’s revolutionary potential in a period of historical upset. In Midwinter Day, food is a connective tissue between pleasure/love and crisis/misery. It allows Mayer’s poems to mediate between immediate corporeal experiences of life and structural and historical circumstances of a world under capitalism. Mayer approaches food in her poems both as one of the substances for reproducing life and as an occasion for marking and celebrating time, as we learn from her interest in the Antarctic explorers’ midwinter feasts. Mayer’s method of recounting her dreams and digressive thoughts throughout the day sits alongside the poem’s insistence on locating itself spatiotemporally: in the home, grocery stores, Lenox the city, and even the 1970s oil crisis and Iranian Revolution, extending her local existence into the larger world and highlighting its global social and economic relations. Midwinter Day asks to be read as a poem about the contradictions and crises of capitalist accumulation; Mayer’s focus on the surplus production of resources, including food and energy, and produce a keen sense of a society sharply defined by hunger, which links together Mayer’s family, poor in a wealthy place, with large parts of the earth’s population. The poem’s attention to food and the 1970s oil crisis—its descriptions of meals, food preparation, grocery shopping, and recurring motifs and images of the unrest in Iran—together connect the intimate scale of Mayer’s family to the scale of resource extraction and global supply; the poem assumes the role of the cognitive and linguistic instrument that, constrained in time, can capture and activate the linkages of space.

The dual nature of food

In Midwinter Day, Mayer often thinks about her own writing practice, she worries, she allows thoughts to interrupt her physical tasks, from putting her children to sleep to choosing a beer to drink. Her reflections often lead us to food. When Mayer asks, “Wouldn’t it be possible / To eat everything,” she is also in part commenting on the method of poetic inquiry that drives her writing at this point in her career, particularly in her 1972 exhibition Memory, which recorded her days for one month in the form of photographs and diary-keeping (including voice tapes), and Studying Hunger composed that same year following the exhibition, which set out to meticulously record thoughts and events in Mayer’s life. Read in the context of these works, eating everything is also a form of noticing, recording, and living as it becomes transcribed by the poet. It opens out to the everythingness of Midwinter Day while remaining subject to Mayer’s intense detailed gaze. Early in the first dream sequence, Mayer and her daughters are fixing “eighteen intricate courses of a Japanese dinner” by their friend Nancy, and eat “hearts of heads of wet red and green lettuce / In the most high and palmy state of friendly love.” Food and love are desire and care. Ken Kesey conducts “a big picnic” and Mayer is in a “special restaurant.” Food gives communal pleasure, including the pleasure of absurdity. When “the salad’s in a hatbox,” it’s too funny. “You don’t just eat from the desire to see a vine,” Mayer explains, “Which today is called a chicken sandwich.”

Food in Midwinter Day orients social gatherings, and provides a pivot-point for thought. But note that whenever Mayer is thinking, she almost always immediately troubles the thought. Food goes from being rich in familial love and ritual to “a large flat dull dry cake like awful life,” and we are warned against “bereft dream cakes … dry and without salt and fat preserving life.” It’s as bad as communion bread. That is, food is love and desire, but food can also bring abjection. Of course, it is also unavoidable, particularly when you are recording every component of a lived day, and when you have small children to feed. Food in the second section interacts with Mayer’s playful voice, thinking aloud as it leads the poem through Mayer’s care responsibilities. “Divided in the light a length of day is measured more in numberless meals … other mothers also do not wittingly give salt, how many eggs could be bad for you if you’re only one … some food are tokens like the cold round cereals in the bowl.” In the third section, taking place in the day’s afternoon, Mayer and her family are out together buying groceries when food once again begins with pleasure (what is more pleasurable than a list of simple foodstuffs? “spaghetti, oranges, juice, yellow peas and some cheese,” “a long slab of pork”) before turning to a more critical reflection, revealing the uglier face of consumption and excess, where “All that filthy meat is more prized than love and poetry’s family / Which is hungry and impatient for munificent dreams and stories.”

Feasting in Antarctica

When Mayer was interviewed by Fanny Howe in 2019, she spoke about her interest in the Antarctic explorers that kept finding its way into her poems: “I got inspired by the Antarctic explorers who would have big suppers on Midwinter Day because it was the day that the sun turned around and, you know, be the beginning of light coming back and into our lives.”1 In the 2021 Post45 cluster on Mayer’s body of work, Jo Barchi and Kay Gabriel discuss connections between “the man who sewed his soles back on his feet” in her much-loved short poem “The Way to Keep Going In Antarctica” and a passage in Midwinter Day that describes one explorer getting so frostbitten “the soles of his feet had come off.”2 Not straying far from imbibement, the short poems contains a somewhat mysterious line, “Our own ideas of food, a Wild sauce,”3 whose mystery is solved in Midwinter Day when a Wild Sauce appears: 

all they would talk about was food because they were so hungry. They would vote on whose idea for something to eat sounded best … One of the winning foods was roasted meat wrapped in bacon and baked in a pastry crust. It must’ve been Shackleton’s because Frank Wild invented a sauce for it that became known as Wild Sauce, but I can’t remember what was in it, maybe it was something sweet. They would dream about food all the time, they would dream the waiters couldn’t hear them shout their orders or when the food came it was suddenly ashes.

Not long after this somber reflection on starving, freezing explorers fantasizing about food, Sophia appears and “eats lunch playfully,” and then we are back to the sauce. Mayer brings food from the domestic reproductive task of feeding back into the world constructed by a person-poet:

I love chopping vegetables where you do something to make something that is one idiosyncratic thing into many things all looking the same or identical, much like the vegetables’ original seeds. How rapt attention is to doing this as if it were a story.

The final sentence in this passage dissolves its syntax, bringing into focus those Mayerian turns and contrasts that come about whenever the concrete world in front of the poet begins to slip below consciousness. For Mayer, the Antarctic explorers become an exotic, dramatic story about hunger for her to hook into, an entry to her own relationship to food and feeding. The midwinter feast with Wild Sauce in harrowing conditions is placed before freshly chopped domestic vegetable sauce in her home kitchen. Mayer wants to make this link through the specific order of juxtaposition. Elsewhere in the poem, Mayer begins with the local and expands into global but here, her obsession with the eating habits of explorers on the other end of the earth eventually returns her to the home, where after lengthy and constant preparation, food is “all eaten too quickly.” The association gives us one of the poem’s most interesting meditations on different ways to be hungry in the world, and different relationships to food production and consumption.

“death is food to remember history to tell”

In the evening, the fifth section of Midwinter Day, Mayer lists an offset single stanza “on love,” which includes “oil-price increases,” “An exploding oil depot in Rhodesia,” “Mexican oil,” “oil-burner-service technicians,” “price rises, a recession,” “New Federal oil-industry regulations,” “the gasoline tax plan,” and extremely tellingly: “Frauds, bombed buildings, the crisis in Iran.” Reports of finances, murders, births, corrections, and the like situate the references to the collapses in oil and finance that newspapers on that day would have reported. The multiscalar movement of the poem becomes clear once again in this section, which employs the structure of the list as well as the “topic” of love, a form that appears within the larger temporal constraint of the single day. When Mayer writes about love here, she’s writing about the world; specifically, she composed this section from documenting stories from the newspaper that day. Oil reappears here, continuing a thread that began in the opening pages of the poem, where, “the road was so slippery from a truck’s oil spill.” Later, “Library hours will be curtailed due to fuel prices / I feel the library should be colder and open longer hours / But I would rather see the downfall of the Shah,” bringing us from Lenox back towards the world in crisis, the global scale to which Mayer keeps turning back. Two pages later, “Men who invidiously wish to be like / The unspeakable Shah of Iran / In their dealings with the world” and in another Mayerian turn, in the final section, she asks Lewis for matches, but he has eaten them “Like a hungry Iranian demonstrator on the Tehran streets / Shouting ‘Death to the Shah!’” Here food and oil converge in crisis. The demonstrator’s hunger, mentioned in passing, is almost a lightning bolt back to Mayer’s recurring attention to hunger and consumption.

If one purpose of Midwinter Day is to draw out connections, as tangled as they are, between the local and the global, Mayer’s focus on food is not only a register of domestic care; it becomes polyphonic. Hunger is a human condition, felt by angry street demonstrators in Tehran and North American toddlers, or even for Mayer herself, breaking the dull cake into pieces in her “adolescent plate.” Midwinter Day doesn’t paper over these differences but allows the juxtapositions to generate meaning, bringing the conditions of these disparate lives into comparison by placing them alongside each other. Mayer shows us a world on multiple scales, with linkages that reveal common suffering but also multiple divergences. It’s a political position that emerges from among the seemingly digressive thoughts and recorded experiences of Mayer’s life on this day. And it somehow emerges in this political way despite Mayer refraining from overt polemic style. Instead, attention itself becomes a mode of political thinking: Mayer is as fastidiously observant of the inner thought process of being-in-world as she is to the materials that make up a world on different scales: from dreams, thoughts, parenting, prepared food to streets in the town, shopping malls, historical Antarctic explorers, unstable fuel prices, and world tragedy (the massacre in Jonestown occurred barely a month before Mayer composed Midwinter Day, and is referenced more than once in the poem). When Mayer returns to food and oil, she is teasing out the ongoing process of subsistence, of the production and reproduction of life and the resources to sustain it. The structure of the poem, its finite time—that single, shortest day of the year—emphasizes that these requirements of subsistence are inseparable from resources and political crisis. Midwinter Day builds these connections to move fluidly between Mayer’s corporeal subjectivity and the world crises of capitalism, and to make a larger claim for the life lived within those ambivalences: that it’s within these details we may find ingredients for a new kind of life.


#272 – Spring 2023