Eating Paper

I’ve been meaning for awhile to read up on pica, the desire to eat non-nutritive substances like chalk or pebbles or hair.  When I feel safe to lift my self-imposed ban on compulsive Kindle-book-buying, I’ll download Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, in which one of the main characters exhibits this behavior.  I also saw a recent book on this topic in my university’s library, Craving Earth: Understanding Pica–the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk by Sera L. Young.

In the meantime, though, the topic of pica came up unexpectedly today when one of my coworkers announced that her inquiry into a specific book shipment was stalled because the recipient’s young daughter had eaten the invoice.  She is two, an age when eating non-nutritive substances is forgivably exploratory and not a symptom of disorder, so we had a giggle about eating paper and our boss sent us this poem:

Eating Poetry
by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs bum like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

In my own work, I do a lot of exploration of the figurative similarities between reading and eating.  In this poem’s imagination, though, the poems are literally eaten:  the narrator is stained with the material trace of their consumption (ink runs like blood from his mouth) and the sad librarian is frustrated by their material absence, perhaps because they are no longer available for others.  While the poems and their would-be readers are not especially benefited by this kind of consumption, the eater is energized; he feels jubilant and savage (I love “I romp with joy in the bookish dark”).  There is a kind of power and threat implied by this kind of consumption, and the narrator seems to enjoy cowing the poor librarian with his voracious appetites (I like “I snarl at her” a lot less).

Obviously this poem is not about pica or any real-life paper-eating situation, but it does play off of some of the anxieties that eating non-food may stir.  The narrator’s gleeful poem-eating places him outside of civilized order and propriety: he becomes like a dog, or perhaps more like a wolf, provoking the librarian’s annoyance and then fear.  At the same time, he implies that he knows something she doesn’t: he is eating poetry, after all – a lofty appetite! – and she “doesn’t understand.”  Making a meal out of objects not intended for human consumption, then, may have the effect of turning the eater into an outcast: a savage (if you ask the librarian) or perhaps a mystic.

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