ANY MACHINE CAN BE A SMOKE MACHINE IF YOU USE IT WRONG ENOUGH
Circe likes to live comfortably. The island,
the private jet – does putting everyone else
between Scylla & Charybdis make this
worth less? Hardly. Circe is moulding you
in her fingers like soft wax – here, amorphous
child of Morpheus, are you comfortable? Circe
takes her tax, she is a circular saw coaxing sap from a slack veiny tree
& in her menagerie the sad lion is left to starve & chew
his stately mane for comfort. She will destroy your planet
to live comfortably, but oh! she is compelling –
for instance, she claims she’s only anti-vaccination
insofar as she is against the continuation of the existence
of this human race, the world’s worst disease, abominations
bombing nations, laughing lesions of senseless flesh celebrating
their own unsubtlety, the syrupy pus of which
she collects in a glass & holds to her lips. Bemused charmer
of every snake, she has taken men to space and yet has not succeeded
in getting them to respect it. She has fought a thousand wars for you
and your right to say that war is bad, although there is a comfort in it.
Knowing who your enemy is. Circe leaves a thick slick of spit
on the panther’s taut haunch, sends him off with a resounding slap
and when his whispering ear is gone she advises you sincerely
to cultivate your loneliness, make your silence
violent, remember a woman’s first blood doesn’t come
from between her legs but from biting her tongue. Circe says
to treat comfort ephemerally, like a fleecy faery-circle
of ringworm on the skin of your inner thigh, a sick unscratchable itch
you don’t want to show. If you admit that you need something that badly
then it can be taken away from you. Circe instructs you to become blood
diamond, smoky topaz, hard-edged undesiring object of destructiveness
& self-destruction internalised by all as desire, as comfort, as Circe’s white
dandelion-floss cat who flows down the street on his way to eat
or sleep or fornicate with the mouse he doesn’t keep at home
instead silently stealing out to play with her
garnet heart among the liquorice-scented ferns.
PRACTISING MY PRIMAL SCREAM
This is the beginning of language A planet
huge and awful throwing itself at the nearest star
and missing Water gnawing toothlessly at the land Birds
screaming for sex People baring their teeth in joy
The beginning of language in a bar being touched
by strangers like an animal at a petting zoo The language of
Knowing the closest I can come to winning the lottery
is seeing my suitcase come first around the airport conveyor
belt The beginning of When you look at me
and do not know I can see you looking you seem so disappointed
Teach me how to prize what is of value The beginning
of language Begging You cradling me flushed
like a $27.99/kg slab of salmon fresh and pungent in your hands
my tongue erodes you like the tide I want You want
for me to sweatily slip anchor here and stay but
I cannot make my home in you I need a place
we all need a place that is not inside of anyone else
This is the beginning of language I am eating
a ham and coleslaw sandwich so enormous that I have to
hold it with both hands but so far nothing has fallen
out of it This makes me feel powerful
To hold something and have it not fall apart
from 'meanwhile in australia'
you wake up. your grandfather is telling you that your generation is too dependent on technology. ‘no your generation is too dependent on technology’ you retort and you pull out the plug on his life support to make sure he gets it. you wake up. in class you put your hand up to answer questions but you are always compelled to begin your answer with ‘sorry’. you wake up. you are fishing with your father. you are secretly repulsed by the things he enjoys. you watch the eels sliming their slow-motion ribbon dance while he quickly and meticulously oversees the unspooling of fish guts back into the water. you wake up. your skin is slippery with sweat under the plaster cast. you want to scratch it but you can’t. you can’t move. you wake up. you lie on the bed unmoving. the nubs of bone have finally begun to crack their way out of the skin your forehead. your lover comes in and stares at you from the doorway. there is much biting of lips. in a month when your antlers have fully formed you stand at the edge of the forest. watch your lover from the trees as they stare into the sun from the porch before rubbing their eyes harder than is necessary. they wipe their hands on their shirt and close the door behind them as they walk back inside. you bend down your long and graceful neck to chew on the sweet young grass. you wake up. you are a bad dog and the person you love the most in the world is holding a gun to your forehead. the ring of metal is cold and there is a tremble to it. your questionless trust absolves you of all responsibility. you wake up. it is not your fault for not running. you wake up. you wonder can a heart still be heavy when it’s empty. you imagine yours in the shape of a tooth. it’s just a shell of white enamel. rotted from the root. it looks OK but there’s nothing inside except glutinous residue and an upsetting smell. you find it difficult to bite down hard on anything these days. you wake up. you’ve had your wisdom teeth pulled out and your cheeks have swollen around the absence of bone there. the itchy ends of the stitches wiggle and shred against a part of your tongue that is not used to being touched. every time you swallow there’s a little bit of blood going down.
WATER IN THE BLOOd: an essay
When I’m little my parents call me ‘Jaws’ because I will eat anything and everything, regardless of how full I might already be. I am told it’s one of the best things a girl can be. ‘Not a fussy eater.’
The power cut itself is not significant. Most winters, the power is out for a couple of weeks once we’ve got over two feet of snow around the house. Dad’s working in the Middle East and Mum is out at her local ladies’ book club which can be stopped by neither hell nor high water, unless there are school holidays. I cook steaks in the frying pan over the fire, boil a pot of water for some Maggi chicken noodles, and eat dinner at the table with my brother and a kerosene lamp.
It must be just after my birthday because there is a slumped wet carrot cake made by our elderly neighbour Mrs Moodie. I cut off a slice for Cam. ‘I don’t really want any,’ he says.
Behind the house there is a narrow path under the water tank to the yard. I take the fat from the steaks out to the dogs. Then I crouch under the trees in a spot where I used to collect blue glass bottles saved out of the rubbish. No recycling out here. My fingernails dig into the back of my throat and the carrot cake spews out hot. I shove some snow over the steam and go back inside to brush my teeth.
When I next head out there to feed the dogs, the ice has thawed a bit. The birds have picked away at the puke but there are still bits of carrot in the snow. Grated orange ribbons, not even properly chewed.
Recently, when I told my not-boyfriend about how things were, he raised an eyebrow at me. ‘But you don’t look that way.’
‘What do you mean?’ I grow icy. Feel the frost swell into steely spindles from inside the bones in my forearm.
‘You know, you’re…’ he gesticulates a vase shape into the air with his hands. ‘It’s not a problem though. I like it.’
It’s self-indulgent to still be inflicting this on other people.
It was so long ago now.
It’s so uncomfortable.
Everyone thinks they’re being accused of something.
Nobody really believes the old ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.
Nobody gets why it’s so important to bring it up if I’m really ‘over it’.
‘Get over it.’
In the school boarding house we share rooms for two with one bed at each end. I don’t see much of my roomie because I go to bed at six-thirty right after dinner and wake up at three to go on the computers in the hallway until the dining room opens for breakfast at six. Sometimes the matron has forgotten to leave the common room unlocked overnight so I water down some milk in a mug and warm it in the microwave. If the stars are particularly well aligned there will be some leftover cheese and I will melt two or even three slices of it in another mug and eat the rubbery goo with a spoon. Once the dining room doors are opened for breakfast I leave for school, going to F block where the Gifted And Talented Education room is unlocked and I can lie down under the desk and press my slight shivering body against the radiator on the wall. I take off my kilt and put it over myself like a blanket. I wear fingerless gloves so I can press my hands on the radiator without getting burned. My friends from school arrive and I talk to them from under the table until the bell rings. I don’t hug anybody because my bones are too sharp and I know it hurts, or at least makes them feel uncomfortable. They know better than to ask me to come out.
I sleep in a thick downy ski jacket under my blankets. I’m wearing two pairs of my brother’s grey wool school socks pulled up over my knees so the bones don’t jab into each other and bruise too much in the morning. I am always trying to get warm. My hands and feet have gone purple under the skin where the sluggish blood claims it wants to crystallize into frost. When I press down on my toes with my fingers it takes a long time for the white spots to fade out from both extremities. This body is an unreliable narrator, trying to tell my amethyst facets they should be red meat. I dream about filleting my arms open to find spindly rows of cartilage and white flesh like a fish. There is dew but no blood.
This anorexic me slaps along the street in her regulation brown T-bar sandals to buy three giant liquorice allsorts every few days from the Pak’n’Save. One liquorice allsort is orange, and vaguely citric. One is yellow, and smells like it tastes – of long-extinct banana, ester isoamyl acetate. One is pink, and pink-flavoured. The white strip in the middle is coconut. It is the worst bit. Each sweet takes a whole school day to eat, so she can always be looking forward to something while she puts her lunch in the sanitary bin in the toilets. It is like a very slow and pointless art film being played on repeat, except sometimes she changes the order in which she eats the different colours. It is important to keep things interesting.
The anorexic tells herself she is hungry for change while she lives the same day over and over again.
A taut man wearing white cotton and a black belt that exaggerates his pot belly visits the gym to introduce us to Tae Kwon Do. The girls all stand in a circle facing inwards, and as he struts around the circle we each have to hold up the blades of our forearms to block a light blow. He stops when he comes to me, circles his fingers around my wrist, gives a squeeze to check there’s nothing but bone and skin under his grip. ‘Do you really think you can fight like this?’
He keeps moving around the circle but he always skips me. After the bell rings the teacher tells me I am no longer allowed to participate in PE. At least not until I put the weight back on. On the upside, this means I get out of running in the cross country.
Academic conceptualisations of eating disorders in girls sometimes do this thing where they represent the ED as the ultimate form of guerrilla resistance against a patriarchal world that assumes our identities before we have had time to form them. It’s a visceral resistance gone too far – instead of fighting the external factors that would thwart us from thriving, girls drive themselves into an internal battle not only for selfhood but for survival. It’s like trying to sucker punch an assailant but missing cartoonishly, swinging around and driving the full force of your fist into your own flesh. Once a certain point of weight loss is reached, the catabolic process continues relentlessly and the body feeds not on its excess fat but on itself. People gifted with so much possibility are subsumed into medicalised institutions of hysteria where we are pathologised and silenced. This unwinnable circuit of self-negation stops us getting organised. There are other acts of power we could exercise. Maybe we should all read some Marx.
clods drain change the all.
of shower volume at
shed the of the sea
I have this body, or I am this body? beat-beat. Owning or being, this body is nothing to do with me. beat. This body is everything I am. beat-beat. Look, little me, plugged into the EKG with my shirt pulled up over a taut sealskin drum of white ribs and new-grown fur, electrodes lightly leeched on and the machine stuttering away. My heart is stumbling to catch up and I’m scared because I know everyone can see it faltering. beat. I’m scared, I’m scared. beat-beat. Help me. The nurse wears cold powdery gloves and does not look up at my face. I worry she is looking at my nipples, which only clench harder when I get self-conscious about it.
My body lives from beat to beat in a world set aside from real time. I’m in the throes of intoxication, riding a separate high. It’s no coincidence that both under- and over-consumption of food are talked about in terms of addiction. Hunger is addictive.
As an addict, I cannot live a normal life, and that’s the point; to eat is to accept the status quo, to condone the dull cruel stupid world, to partake in it, let it gorge on me in return. How could I explain to anybody this dizzy rapture, the ultimate power in my need for nothing, stepping outside the cycle of life?
Invincible the dazzling lunacy of a self compressed into razor surfaces inhabiting another dimension in a dizzying array of medical appointments and sick days a walking whipcrack sprite impossibly whittled bonehollow I no soft yellow root of grass or earthy yield but a frozen blade unbent celestial I do not age or grow where the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out I worry that to eat is to be the worm to invite the evil earth into me and assimilate with it so binging is but a symptom of weakness the pathetic desire to belong to something and the weight of my body insists that I exist but in my prison prism of chill pure light I can live in the untidy world of meat without fear of it because this is the new world I have built for myself an existence encrusted in each direction with fine clear spindles of hoarfrost that dig me from every direction into an ecstasy of pain.
In the dining room at breakfast I am peeling a single grape, sucking on the bits of skin.
‘You look great,’ Ellie sighs, ‘I wish I could have your self-control.’
I am all willpower, no identity. There is no ‘me’, there is only what I refuse to be. In ungrowing, in coming undone, I become.
Dad is back in town. He comes to visit the boarding house and takes me out for coffee. I order a long black. It’s weaker than I’m used to – most mornings I tip teaspoon after teaspoon of instant Nescafé into a throwaway plastic cup, drip in just enough lukewarm water to make it a runny paste that isn’t too thick to swallow, and sip it through tutor group meetings before first period. It keeps me alive, more or less. Liking coffee also makes me feel grown up, and my father (a double-espresso connoisseur of the caffeinated tar) is impressed.
Dad also orders an afghan the size of the small plate it comes on. It crumbles in his hands as he breaks off half, and eats it as we talk about school and local politics. I eye the afghan like a sheep watches a dog, trying to look nonchalant as I sip at the water trough but rolling the whites of my eyes around so as not to let the threat out of my sight. ‘Eat it,’ he says. ‘Why won’t you just eat it?’
‘We’re not leaving here until you eat that biscuit.’ I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. Unstoppable force versus immovable object; neither of us can bear what it means to relent. We sit in that café forever. We never leave. We are still sitting there, right now, at the tall stools by the window, looking out onto the skyline of Christchurch’s central city, which has never been shaken by earthquakes, and now it never will be, everything will all just be still.
flimsy film-translucent, all those possible
futures paraded in the chill light which
collects like dew on your bones. x-ray
days dissolving into desperate suspensions
of disbelief. the hard pea of discomfort
under your mattress. the sternum
sticking sharp where your quiet heart
holds a dagger towards us and says
-you could have done more-.
we cry and cannot say why. cannot say
-I do not remember what life was like
when you were well-.
There is shame in medication, but it’s a badge of honour at the same time. My body’s violent hieroglyphic no-thank-you language is legitimised. It will not be ignored. When Mum picks me up from school she doesn’t check if I’ve got my meds. Just looks me in the eyes and asks ‘have you got everything you need?’
My internet friends compare dosages with me.
Plenty of studies have been done on pro-ED or pro-recovery websites, forums, and blogs, trying to weed out the reasons behind the ED, and the best way to treat or cure these withering bodies and minds. Eating disorders are treated as contagious, more readily communicable than any other mental health issue, especially online. One thing becomes clear: nobody is absolutely sure whether it’s a lifestyle or a disease.
It helps some (i.e. me) to think of eating disorders as a tumorous overgrowth of agency. Modern empowerment is about being able to be all things to all people, without missing a beat. But there are some of us who, when we’re told that we can be anything, hear we have to be everything. And we can be, if only we try hard enough. Freedom to try brings freedom to fail – and failure is only acceptable on our own terms. So agency isn’t always a positive. Agency can be twisted, painful, frustrated – it acts on every potential. The technologies of the self can be used to create or to destroy.
Recovery requires deconstructing and rebuilding the world again. Unwieldy, Jenga brick by Jenga brick. A new game, new rules to play by. Occasionally the tower gets nudged in the wrong place and topples, but I build it up again faster each time. Being better isn’t about not having the problem, it’s about improving my reflexes, until eventually I can catch the tower before it starts to fall.
I hoard food. I ferry cans of condensed milk from the boarding house to a growing aluminium pyramid in my wardrobe at the farm. In my backpack pockets I find packets of Yummy! shrimp noodles, expired by several months. I go to the supermarket when I feel unsafe. I get irritated easily by the herds of girls dieting around me. I very pointedly do not worry about what I eat, but feel anxious when I miss meals. I occasionally attend yoga.
Recovery is an absurd fever dream. I wake at three in the morning to creep into the pantry and eat fistfuls of dry muesli. It swells up painfully in my stomach. I think about the seven rams that got stuck greedily into a sack of barley in the yard last year and died inflated, their bellies rounded near-spherical and their legs sticking out. The ultimate balloon animals.
I crawl into bed with my drowsy mother and cry into her nightie. She is very warm and smells like laundry softener.
‘Oh sweetheart,’ she says. ‘Oh my poor baby.’
Some years after I have Got Better, my mother
is very proud of herself for losing that extra
ten kay-geez. She aims for another five, asks me
for tips. Then offers them, I’m getting a bit
more beefy than would best seem me. Oh
she has been months at it like this.
on the long straight highway from Ash Vegas
I try tactful I ask if she remembers I ask
if she could maybe just. not.
I say happy she’s happy but could she
talk about this to somebody who is not me
given my history
hands white gripping the steering wheel she gets angry
shouts weeping nobody ever thinks about me
we do we do I soothe
we cry together, separately.
When you meet other survivors in the future outside of sickness – a future which doesn’t really exist, even when you’re in it – there’s this weird competition, like whether you were sick enough. And it’s right back there where you’re not seeing yourself as a person any more, just a fractured series of expectations, externally and internally imposed. Also suddenly you’re talking about the not-you who looked through your eyes and talked with your voice and you realise how much more you now belong to your body, how little it belongs to you, how you reassure yourself sometimes knowing that you could start over at any moment but deep down you know you can’t, your body remembers. It will do what it takes to survive. It won’t trust you properly again. It has its own memory.
My body cannot forget how it feels to be starving. It’s chronic, a hunger that feeds off itself, that grows insatiably, that is always new. The old pang that used to signal hunger (Pavlov ringing a brass bell) (ding) is drowned out by a roar, a waterfall echoing down a cave into the world’s centre, light and stardust and matter gushing into the black hole at a galaxy’s heart. I am
in orbit around the pit, the desire to live
is the desire to devour everything.
I have found a word for myself.
If people ask who I am
I can say it. ‘I’m
Rebecca Hawkes has just finished her first degree at Victoria University in Wellington where, as well as writing, she made zines, sculptures, and procrastipaintings in between her essay deadlines. In 2016 she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.