The Poetry Project

World of Yum-Yum: On Studying Hunger

Matthew Rana

On September 22, 1972, the American poet Bernadette Mayer wrote the following inside her psychoanalysis journal: “Jacques (Lacan) has wise words 4 me, it’s 2 good to B true, you’re 2 good to B’dette.” Nestled inside this parody of Lacanian algebra, there is, I think, a kernel of wisdom whose truth lies in its very improbability. Because there is a sense in which the poet’s statement seems to radically condense the French psychoanalyst’s ideas surrounding what he called the “barred Other” or the constitutive lack within the symbolic order. “I always speak the truth,” he claims in Television, “Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds on to the real.”

To a poet preoccupied with the question of whether “to leave all out to include all,” as she puts it in the coda to her month-long experiment in self-documentation Memory, these words or similar would have seemed wise, indeed.1 For one of the contradictory claims of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it is precisely because of what is left out of language, what it cannot say, that we begin to speak at all. Put differently, it is in the structural incompleteness of language itself, its failure to say or symbolize everything, that the speaking being emerges—not as an organic whole, but as internally cut off and divided from itself. As in the moniker “B’dette,” there is something crucial missing, something coextensive yet non-identical that cleaves the subject of language not into two, but into a one that is paradoxically both less than and more than itself.

This something—the not-all that both enables signification and disrupts it—is arguably the center around which Mayer’s Studying Hunger, a book-length prose poem based on the notebooks that she kept while in analysis, revolves. An avid reader of Freud and psychoanalytic theory in general (poems such as “The Sexual Etiology of the Child” and “Ferenczi”2 indicate the breadth of her reading), Mayer began her study in April, 1972—about five years before Lacan’s work would become widely available in English.3 As she writes in the book’s opening paragraphs, “I wanted to try to record, like a diary, in writing, states of consciousness, my states of consciousness, as fully as I could,” using a “workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition” of her mind. Mayer shared the notebooks with her “psychiatrist” David Rubinfine (tellingly styled as Belial, an Old Testament demon, in the unabridged 2011 edition Studying Hunger Journals), a former neurologist with highly unorthodox methods, as part of her treatment.4 Not surprisingly, much of the book is spent recounting dreams—another one of the author’s main preoccupations—including one in which she has sex with the famous Freudian case study in obsessional neurosis, the so-called Rat Man. But unlike, say, Tribute to Freud, H.D.’s mythopoetic account of her time on the couch at Berggasse, Mayer’s dense blocks of associative and loosely punctuated prose offer little in the way of personal discovery or intimate revelation. On the contrary, they are marked by a certain opacity. Despite torrents of words and the author’s freewheeling use of the second-person, there is something in the poem that resists us; more than proper names, something crucial is being withheld. ““Please believe me, there are things you cannot write,” she confides.

Even her musings on sex and womanhood are interrogative, as though giving form to the (unanswerable) question around which, according to Lacan, the clinical structure of hysteria turns: What is a woman? Or, in Mayer’s formulation: “Is this a woman writing? Is this person a woman? Is this woman elated? Is this a woman’s elation?” Pressing Lacan on the matter of sexual difference, she writes: “Send penis quick direct to mind where sex can annihilate instinct,” a reference to the “phallus,” the notorious master-signifier of castration which also plays a key role in the psychoanalyst’s notion of sex as a symbolic position (and not a biological or instinctual given). Nevertheless, the poet is circumspect: “If the penis, Lacan, existed only in the mind, then it would be possible for even the most simple-minded insect (trouvé) to find your thought and enlarge on it horribly.” Even the phallus, it stands to reason, must in some way hold on to the real.

Although such questioning of sex may seem a psychoanalytic commonplace, its persistence in Studying Hunger is significant for the way it suggests what cannot manifest in consciousness. Put differently, it gestures towards precisely what is left out of the author’s attempt to include all, not as an element that is repressed, but rather, as an element whose absence is necessary to her code’s functioning, yet which also disturbs it and makes it unworkable. Mayer touches on this towards the end of the 1975 edition in a missive to the author of Écrits:

Dear Dr. Lacan, The penultimate distance between myself and you (if you were sitting on the peacock (that is, where it is presently placed in the room) and I myself and I were all-in-one like a cat half-dancing on the absent you (I mean rug) (sic) would ____ be large enough (how can I describe it all in two dimensions?) so that my gaping yawn (cette béance lettriste (note: why does she assume, without full knowledge that the béance is feminine? See Proust’s roosters)) and the dawning sigh that such an opening evokes, reverentially towards all human presence, could not be heard by you and yours? AUDIT, AUD, IBLE, = AUDITABLE.

In French, béance is both a literary term meaning wide gap (or gape) and a scientific term for the opening of the larynx. In Lacanian parlance, it stands for the gap that emerges in place of the missing signifier whose presence would complete the signifying order, thus making it possible to “say it all.” Put more simply, the béance marks the limit of symbolization. By assuming that this limit is feminine, Mayer is suggesting that sexuality and sexual difference too occupy this limit. But in the manner of an inaudible sigh or the rift between syllables in the word “AUDIT.” Pronounced individually, they form a nonsensical French phrase, au dit, which to Lacan’s ears might have registered (if at all) as “to the said.” Something in the direction of or tending toward what is said, but which is in itself unspoken. Echoing what is perhaps the psychoanalyst’s most infamous claim, the relation here is one of non-relation or, following Mayer, of “penultimate distance.” For, at the same time, that words become “auditable” or accountable at all depends upon this “dawning” gap that sets the signifying chain in motion. To speak of sex, then, is to speak of nothing other than this fundamental contradiction in language. In any case, this is what I think Mayer wants us to consider.

Remarkably, this sex is not the only break in the symbolic that Studying Hunger confronts us with. The problem of hunger (that great metaphor for desire) also has a privileged relationship to the real in psychoanalytic thought. Take, for example, Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory, in which the maternal breast becomes the primordial object to which all aspects of mental life are bound—irrespective of whether we were breastfed. Mayer poses the problem in a slightly different register in Book III of the Journals: “how to get rid of milk, the proof of all ache of all love is the start of the crime.” In Lacanian theory, hunger—or, “the world of yum-yum” as he called it—takes a similar turn. According to this account, because the infant’s need for nourishment is satisfied by another on whom it depends, its cries for food take on the added significance of demanding the Other’s love. This demand thus acquires the dual function of articulating a need that is both real and symbolic; since the latter can never be satisfied, or, more precisely, since it gives rise to a satisfaction in excess of the biological need for food, its demand (for more satisfaction) eventually eclipses that of the former and is inscribed in the unconscious as the oral drive. For this reason, the “pleasure of the mouth,” to use Lacan’s phrase, derives from neither food nor drink, nor memories of the primary relation with the caregiver, but from repeating the cry for the absent object, what he calls the unattainable object a, or the object cause of desire.

Lacan calls the object a of the oral drive “the breast.” Importantly, however, the object a is not a property of the subject, but a property of the object; it is the point of lack in the Other that evades us, and in doing so incites our desire. Just as the object a in the visual field, “the gaze,” looks blindly at us from a place we cannot see, “the breast” feeds on us while we grope for it in vain. What we “hunger” for is, therefore, not food per se, but the enjoyment of being eaten—in Lacan’s words, “getting sucked.”

Mayer describes a similar dynamic in a line repeated throughout the Journals, “my hunger creates a food that everybody needs.” Here, hunger produces its own satisfaction, providing readers with what she refers to elsewhere in the book as “real food… food to sustain you, not eat.”5 There is certainly a kind of satisfaction to be found in reading Hunger—the Journals too, all 457 pages of them—but there is also a kind of pleasure. We feed on the author’s hunger at the same time as we are consumed by it. Because in holding on to the real (of sex, of “the breast”), Mayer’s writing sustains our experience of the impossibility at the very heart of language. In her work, we repeatedly encounter what causes words to fail. And this is why, I think, Mayer’s writing excites—why it gets us off, so to speak: it coincides with our own unconscious desire. At least, it gives us, as readers, the opportunity to embrace our position as unconsciously desiring subjects. Perhaps this also explains why much of Mayer’s writing from the period, from Memory to The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, is often deemed difficult or inaccessible: insofar as we, as speaking beings, are internally divided and cut off from ourselves, our desire remains inscrutable; we can never say everything about it. This confrontation with the real is also, to an extent, traumatic: it impinges on our words and disturbs our sense of self and of the social. Yet, in doing so, it also opens up nothing short of possibility—for new ways of speaking and being, new articulations of desire. Such possibility needs to be tirelessly maintained, however. As Joan Copjec, a thinker whose work informed my reflections in this essay, puts it, “we must not stop writing the impossibility of the real, the impossibility of ‘saying it all.’”6 I cannot think of a more Mayerian project.


  1. As Mayer puts it in Midwinter Day: “How preoccupying / Is the wish to include all or to leave all out / Some say either wish is against a poem or art / I’m asking / Is it an insane wish?”
  2. A reference to the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (1873-1933), whose theory of “thalassal regression” held that coitus aims to return not only to the maternal womb, but also to aquatic life.
  3. Alan Sheridan’s translations of Écrits and Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts in Psychoanalysis were both published in 1977 by W.W. Norton & Co.
  4. According to Mayer: “[David] saw me for free... [we] had a sexual dalliance, but then we started just to ‘work.’” She adds: “[He] didn’t act formally like a psychiatrist at all, we had picnics together, sitting in the grass eating caviar, drinking wine. he also took me to the cemetery to see my parent‘s graves. we also went to one of the landmarks in my analysis, a german restaurant named neiderstein‘s where we talked & drank martinis.”
  5. Similar ideas are echoed in other poems from the period, such as “I Am Your Food I Am Your Fate,” a tongue-in-cheek ode to domesticity in which the lines “I always mean to say one thing when I mean two” and “we begin to say one thing and we wind up saying two,” anchor a sequence of rhyming quatrains that seem to undermine the myth of sexual complementarity that is central to heteronormative coupling. (Milkweed Smithereens, 33)
  6. Joan Copjec, ‘Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety,’ in Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, 136.

#272 – Spring 2023