When was the last time you were hungry? The last time you felt the lining of your stomach beg to expand, your small intestine grind up against its own walls with emptiness? Hunger is a phone ringing inside each of our tummies. If humans had pits, hunger would be the peach. Or rather, the blackness in the hole. The pit of hunger is more like a void than a seed, a closer relative to lack than it is to possibility. We use words like “pit” and “empty” to describe our gurgles because the lurch inside our flesh prisons makes us want to grab a shovel and fill the lacking, longing, needing, begging place with anything we can get our grubby little hands on.
Sometimes I get so happy I need to eat. When my endorphins spike they immediately collapse down my esophagus and tip off my gut to the possibility of input. When I smile, it’s more to lubricate my lips than to show off the thousands of dollars of dental work. And about my lips: sometimes, when I get to eat alone, I inhale so much chili that they chafe and burn. Have you ever felt that? When you are so eagerly filling the void that you forget other parts of your body can get damaged in the process? The pits behind our belly buttons control our lives, the procession of our days, the relationships we make and maintain.
Back in the days when we hunted mammoth and were really legitimately afraid of the dark, some enterprising schmuck of a Homo sapiens decided we needed to control fire. She grabbed a lightning bolt from the sky and squirreled it away in some pinecones. She didn’t do this to keep the darkness at bay or warm her little cave, but because her newly evolved woman’s intuition rang. Intuition is a lot like hunger. It’s a warning and a promise. A warning that we better pay attention, that our incredibly evolved brains need to get communicating and obeying the rest of our body. That Homo who grabbed fire out of the sky didn’t do it so she’d become famous one day, but because she was hungry. Or her kid was hungry and she wanted to shut him up. But she was probably starving herself.
I was taught how to cook by women. A fat one and a short one. They’d pull chairs up to the kitchen counter and say This is how you cut an onion and This is how you don’t burn yourself on the range and You have to add wine to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Have you ever heard that? The sound of wine hitting steel, or aluminum, or copper, or cast iron? That’s the most beautiful sound in the whole fucking wide world. Go on, take a second, think of that sound. When liquid screams and becomes vapor, breaks loose the chunks of browned butter and bacon fat, and the sound hits your eardrums and it's better than your mom saying she loves you or your lover saying they’ll stay. A deglazed pot is better than a mother or a soul mate. It’s honest and reliable and easily recreated, not dependent on grades or staying out of trouble or staying in love.
All of our inventions, really, are to satiate a hunger. Our first tools were for acquiring, killing, cultivating, or cooking food. It’s more the mother of invention than that skank Necessity. When you get a human good and hungry, it’s amazing the lengths they’ll go to in order to reach the last Pringle. Look at all we’ve done to our world in the name of hunger, in the endless quest to fill our gullets. We tamed potatoes and pigs, changed their DNA to become new breeds that taste better. We’ve irrigated deserts to grow corn, created banks of seeds in what used to be permafrost in order to keep hunger at bay for future generations.
When I read I get hungry, too. My eyes love words almost as much as they love landing on a stack of pastrami. The brain, for Homo sapiens, is the most calorie-hungry organ in the body. They’ve hooked kids up to wires and computers when they’re taking the SAT or the ACT or one of those other tests that used to matter. When they look at the readout, it’s like they’ve burnt the same fuel as running a half marathon. I may be forgetting the details but I’m not making this up. When we think we burn our insides up and have to replace the lost material. Eating begets thinking about what to eat next, hunger begets desire to be unhungry. But do we ever fully sate our hungers? Does that phone ever stop ringing? Goddess, I hope not. I live for hunger. I love that moment each day when my body quakes with an urgent empty need, when I can feel my gut fold in on itself. Sometimes I go a whole day without eating just so I can get good and ravenous. I feel like it’s the most alive I’ll ever be, when every atom inside of me is screaming for pasta.
I hope when you read this collection of words you get hungry. I hope you get a call from your body to let you know it demands something. Deny it. At least for the duration of one poem or even a paragraph if you can stomach it. But when you turn the page, or have to scroll down, take a break and go chop an onion. Take some olive oil and heat it in a medium sauce pan over high heat until it shimmers. It’ll look like eyes right before the first tear falls. Then throw that onion in. Listen to the sizzle, the pop of water in the cells exploding. Let them get translucent, the glucose begin to caramelize. Then, maybe, you’ll know what it sounds like to catch a lightning bolt, or return to your mother’s womb, or be loved. Because that onion is concrete, and everything else in the world is just abstract.
Will Hollis is from Cincinnati,and has received his MFA from Western Kentucky University. He is a poet, community arts advocate and his work has appeared in Caravel, Literary Orphans, the Sourland Mountain Review, Longleaf Pine, and Fourth River. His writing follows rivers, investigating the emotional, economical, and ecological impact they have on the people who live on their banks.