Victoria Kennefick: Eat or We Both Starve

Eat or We Both Starve is an order from a concerned parent, the potential title of a self-help cookery book as well as for Victoria Kennefick’s debut poetry collection. The title originates from words uttered by child Krishna in trippy calligram “Open Your Mouth”, which extends the story of Krishna being reprimanded by his mother (Yashoda) for eating clay “for fun”; Yashoda is not only taught a philosophical lesson by seeing the whole universe in her son’s mouth (“The earth, its mountains and oceans,/moons and stars,/planets and regions”), but is offered to taste it (“she swallowed/and felt/full”).

This Hindu parable is one of a number of religious allusions in Kennefick’s collection. “Second Communion” returns to a childhood communion (“take, eat, this is my body”) as the narrator dares to ask “If I eat Jesus will he want to eat me?” The smooth chocolate Easter egg of “Forty Days” suggests we “unwrap Lent like a treat” and considers the “ecstasy of denial” – “Christ has risen, Alleluia./Resurrection with chocolate sauce made us sick”.

There’s also a series of poems about historical religious figures: hunger strikes Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), Veronica Giuliani (1660-1727), Columba of Rieti (1467-1501) and Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) in poems of the same name. Catholic mystic Catherine of Siena fasts in protest on learning that her parents wanted her to marry her dead sister’s husband, “the slack-jawed widower”; Italian Franciscan tertiary Angela of Foligno chews the scabs of the unclean; poor Italian nun Veronica Giuliani has to clean the walls and floors of her cell with her tongue; Italian mystic Columba of Rieti, who possibly had anorexia, beats herself with spiked chains, Italian Saint Gemma Galgani’s life is described in chapters, including her dangerous illness (during which she is tormented by banquets), leading  to a life of stigmata, perfect obedience and profound humility. Hunger finally strikes the poet herself (“Hunger Strikes Victoria Kennefick”), in which she declares in a Hamlet inspired soliloquy:

To eat or not to eat,
switch table sides.
Stuff cheese sandwiches
and chocolate blocks into a wide
moist orifice. Or, alternatively
zip that mouth
closed like a jacket,
a body already
contained within
It doesn’t need
To feed.

We are what we eat, said the badge in the’70s; Eat or We Both Starve considers some difficult subjects in relation to food.”(M)eat” convincingly puts the reader in the shoes (or mouth) of a child to consider their struggle to eat meat as proud parents look on. ”Pythagoreans” makes a compelling argument for vegetarianism – “Being brutal does something to a person”. The psychology of food and eating are addressed in “Alternative Medicine”; in “Diet”, specific food brings back difficult memories of a loved one in hospital (“In truth, I fell out of love with food/because my father did. It was summer I remember”). There’s the annual diet of “January”, “Emptying myself/of all things ripe/and wanton, I am winter grass”, and anxiety in dressing rooms over weight in “Beached Whale” – an empathetic portrait of a mother struggling with her reflection “distorted in a fluorescent mirror” and the desperation “to hold onto something real”.

Kennefick’s poetry quivers with life and sensuality, like the steak pulsating on a restaurant plate in “A La Carte”. The nightclub pull of “Big Girl” expresses its sensuality through appetite, sucking salty and bitter chips, “pushing masticated potato/onto the dent of your plump tongues”. In “The Talk”, the poet figures out what a dirty word means when an older man “in double-denim” sucks “the alcopop tongue” out of her head. In “Paris Syndrome” amongst warm cider and flambéed pancakes, the poet’s lover licks her “Mona Lisa smile right off”.

This idea is taken one step further, with humans as the ultimate delicacy, in some startling and provocative poems about cannibalism. The obscure story of 13th century Italian cannibal Count Ugolino is evoked in the inquisitive “Count Ugolino or History’s Vaguest Cannibal”. According to Dante, Count Ugolino’s imprisoned children may have begged him to eat their bodies, but the facts are uncertain; the poet tries to get to the truth through a direct question:  “What did you do/when they begged you to eat them?”; she, or the finger-gnawing Count, concludes at the end of the poem that hunger proved stronger than grief.

A more modern take on cannibalism is “What it Would be Like to Eat a Girl”, a visit to the “Dark Fetish Network” in which Kennefick captures the alienated voice of a dysfunctional internet user; the plain and flat sentences arranged in two columns emphasise the disaffected nature of the subject. There’s also a more personal approach to eating humans in the nightmare vision of “Learning to Eat my Mother, where my Mother is the Teacher” in which Kennnefick declares amidst stomach churning detailed descriptions of the preparations and act itself, “Strange, a vegetarian resorting to cannibalism”. It’s the first poem in the collection and a bold start.

Eat or We Both Starve has a clear focus on its central theme, but there are also a number of poems not concerned with food and appetite in the collection. It’s not always pretty; after too much pineapple rum, there’s some bitching about a fetish model in “The Preacher’s Daughter”, and “Burn Baby, Burn” is a dark grudge of crunching bones (perhaps to be sent to your enemies anonymously). “Moby-Dick” wonders about the course of life and how relationships turn out (“Life, perverse origami, folds and twists and shapes itself”). “I Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” is an amusing look at being a teacher and “Smell Dating” delves into the unusual, exciting and disturbing possibility of dating by scent “Surrender yourself to the poignant/experience of body odour, the website said”).

There’s a strong sense of the poet herself. “Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016” and “Researching the Irish Famine” are well informed by the poet’s nationality. Identity is explored in “A Young Girl Discovers her Reflection” and “Selfie”, with further poems about women, mothers, grandmother, sisters and femininity. “In Memory of Mary Tyler Moore” and “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” are impressive for their depictions of two great characters; Mary Tyler Moore is credited for bringing realism to television (“Women don’t wear/full skirted dresses to vacuum in”). The poet prays to “O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting/bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing” for grace, with Hepburn brought to life through her admission in the poem that she is hungry too.

Eat or We Both Starve was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2021 and the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize 2022, was an Irish Times Best Poetry Book for 2021, and selected as one of The Telegraph’s Best Poetry Books to Buy 2021. It’s easy to understand why this charming and interesting collection would appeal to critics, readers, poetry fans –whether carnivore, cannibal, frugivore, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, we all have to eat to survive, but this collection is good enough to eat. If we said it’s a meal not a snack, we hope you’ll understand.

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Publisher: Carcanet Press
Publication Date: 25 MAR 2021

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