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Consuming Desire

December 5, 2012

It was Chris at Stuff As Dreams are Made On  who convinced me to find a volume of poetry entitled Atlas by Katrina Vandenberg because he recommended it so enthusiastically (and repeatedly).  While I was reading it, I found out that John Green, the YA author (and alumnus of the college where I work) is also a fan and sometimes reads her poetry out loud.

Last night I was reading Atlas and came across a poem that struck me almost as a response to something that has been bothering me at a very low level.  I have a cousin who is militantly vegetarian, and as she ages, she gets more and more militant about it. Yesterday she put a post on Facebook that said “You can’t love animals and eat them.”  Nonsense, I thought. I love some of them on my pillow, purring in the middle of the night, and I love others roasted, fried, grilled, and stewed.  I love peacocks, and yet there is no dish I haven’t tried that I long to try as much as breast of peacock (with apple pie).

Especially this time of year, I stand in line at the grocery store staring at the front pages of the periodicals and mentally correlating the number of articles about dieting with the number of articles about recipes on the cover of the same magazine.  It seems so perverse, offering food with one hand and yanking it away with the other.  Like the speaker of Vandenberg’s poem, I would like to see more naked desire, more

Consuming Desire

I’m not making this up. In Café Latte’s wine bar
one of the lovely coeds at the next table
touched John on the arm as if I wasn’t there
and said, Excuse me, sir, but what
is that naughty little dessert?
And I knew from the way he glanced
at the frothy neckline of her blouse,
then immediately cast his eyes on his plate
before giving a fatherly answer,
he would have given up dessert three months
for the chance to feed this one to her.
I was stunned; John was hopeful;
but the girl was hitting on his cake.
Though she told her friend until they left
she did not want any. I wish she wanted
something—my husband, his cake, both at once.
I wish she left insisting
upon the beauty of his hands, his curls,
the sublimeness of strawberries
and angel food. But she was precocious,
and I fear adulthood is the discipline
of being above desire, cultivated
after years of learning what you want
and where and how, after insisting
that you will one day have it. I don’t
ever want to stop noticing a man like the one
at the bar in his loosened tie, reading
the Star Tribune. I don’t want to eat my cake
with a baby spoon to force small bites,
as women’s magazines suggest. And you
don’t want to either, do you? You want a big piece
of this world. You would love to have the whole thing.

Don’t you love the way the poem turns out to an imaginary audience at the end, acknowledging boundaries even as it reveals the way our hunger could be unbounded?  If you have the whole thing, what’s left for me?

I would like to say to my cousin, the one cousin I grew up with, the only cousin I’ve ever wanted to see during the holidays and still miss when she’s not there, that we all want a big piece–and maybe adulthood is the discipline of making sure that our desires don’t interfere too much with the desires of others.

And I would like to say thanks to Katrina Vandenberg for the line “the girl was hitting on his cake.”

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2012 9:34 am

    Which is why I cringe a bit when people (well-meaning, I’m sure) ask why I became a vegetarian. Because, really? You probably don’t want to hear it. I do like this poem and I think you can have the whole cake – one slice at a time. Just not all at once.

    • December 6, 2012 7:49 am

      And it’s not just vegetarians, of course. They’re sometimes asked to justify why they don’t eat meat and so pre-emptively launch into the explanations. Really, though, I don’t want to hear anyone explain why they won’t eat something any more than I want to hear them launch into a list of books they don’t like.
      One slice at a time is a good way to think about being more of an adult about one’s consuming desires.

  2. Karen D permalink
    December 5, 2012 10:17 am

    I *love* this poem. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Jeanne.

    • December 6, 2012 7:52 am

      My pleasure. I well remember the consuming desires of both my pregnancies; it was clear that someone else was directing my eating from the very beginning.

      • Karen D permalink
        December 8, 2012 9:26 am

        With D, I ate so many chiles rellenos that it always amuses me that these days he does not care for spicy foods. This time around….I “*might* have had one at some point in the last 7 months.

  3. December 5, 2012 7:54 pm

    I laughed right out loud at the “hitting on the cake” line. Wonderful! And that idea of adulthood as being about being above desire to the point of denying our own desires exist–sadly, that’s all too true.

    • December 5, 2012 8:08 pm

      That line made me sigh with recognition and with sadness that it’s true too. I loved this poem, Jeanne!

      • December 6, 2012 8:00 am

        Denying our own desire leads us down the road that Blanche Dubois travels.

    • Karen D permalink
      December 8, 2012 9:41 am

      Agreed that the line that made me really love this poem was “I fear adulthood is the discipline / of being above desire”. It rings so true on first hearing, and then requires hedging around with exceptions and clarifications on further thought. I was having a conversation with a group of my first-semester college students a week or two ago, in which I tried to point out that one of the difficulties of college is the difficulty of self-control, and of the amount of self-knowledge necessary for effective self-control. Getting to know yourself at that level is frequently a slow and somewhat painful process; we are not generally exactly who we believed ourselves to be at 18. It’s hard to learn the scope of your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and to learn them well enough to be able to accept them and compensate for them as best you can. Those first years of college (and grad school, for those who attend it; and on a new job; and as a new spouse/partner; and as a new parent; etc) introduce so many new situations and new demands and new opportunities to see yourself responding and changing in ways you might not have anticipated….it’s hard! We talked about a bit of this in the context of the difference between bias and prejudice–and the necessity to be aware of and to acknowledge our own biases enough to prevent them from controlling our actions.

      Still, as the parent of a young child, I think the poet has hit on an excellent juxtaposition. If true adulthood requires self-knowledge to enable self-control, then I think a good bit of childhood (and young adulthood) involves acquiring self-knowledge in the form of “years of learning what you want / and where and how” and figuring out just how “you will one day have it”.

      Maybe *that’s* what makes the late teen years (and early twenties?) both beautiful and challenging: the balance between figuring out who you are (= what you want, what you will do to achieve it) and who you are (=who are you NOT, what are your flaws, what behaviors/assumptions/habits must you guard against).

      • December 8, 2012 5:01 pm

        Oh yes. So well put. We’re seeing the start of this in the thoughtful way our youngest child is responding to the essay prompts for the several colleges he is applying to. I think we see it more with him, because who he is not is significantly different for him than it is for me or his father or sister. He may not go to a liberal arts college (gasp!).

        • Karen D permalink
          December 9, 2012 9:33 am

          I can empathize with W. I am an engineering.science.math mind in a philosophy.education.humanities family. My final choices in the college game were your small town college, Rice University, and MIT. I think I am particularly aware of the who you are vs who you are not because in high school I was so many things….and growing up in college and grad school involved focusing on which things I was going to continue to be, and which I was going to acknowledge as not actually the core of me. But I don’t like to give anything up, really, so I went to a liberal arts college and sang and played my trumpet, and I married a musician who is a teacher (or is that backwards?), and I *do* the things that I am, while surrounding myself with the things that I am *not quite*.
          Best of luck to your boyo as he finds his own way.

  4. December 6, 2012 5:09 pm

    Great poem – still working out the ethics of eating meat when I know how it is produced, but still I eat it.

    • December 6, 2012 8:34 pm

      Yeah, I buy most of our meat from a local farm now. Because I can.

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