Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Lunch Portraits

By Debora Kuan

Reviewed By Nathan Hoks

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In the “Hunger as Ideology” chapter of Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo argues, through an analysis of food advertisements, that women’s ambitions are disciplined through cultural attitudes surrounding food, desire, and the body. Complicating matters, relationships to food intersect with sexual hang-ups, forming a kind of Möbius strip in which hunger and desire are constantly becoming each other, at least metaphorically speaking. In Bordo’s analysis, “the trope of female hunger as female sexuality” has been responsible both for “misogynist images permeated with terror and loathing” and for an assortment of Victorian restrictions on the visibility and expression of women’s appetites, with a slew of eating disorders and mental health issues in tow. The prevailing ideology—the ideology of hunger—means that the ideal woman never shows visible signs of hunger or desire, and that hunger (or the lack of satisfaction) is itself synonymous with Western culture’s idea of woman.

Debora Kuan’s wonderful Lunch Portraits inverts and subverts this ideology of hunger, constructing poems that deploy tongue-in-cheek surrealist absurdity, biting social satire, and lyrical longing, revealing the psychological consequences of our pervasive “terror and loathing” of female hunger and sexuality. Kuan’s tonal modulation, which runs swiftly between absurdity and sincerity, makes these poems engrossing complexes of the emotions and attitudes that pervade such matters. Gender and cultural theory aside, these are fantastic poems.

Kuan’s playful images are not frivolous surrealism: they work in sum as forceful reminders of the prevalence of the misogynistic ideology of hunger. Consider these hilarious but potent declarations, which arrive early in the book in “Portrait of a Woman with a Hoagie”:

I want to drown in six pounds of macaroni salad.
The groans of Super Bowl Sunday. The cries of triumph.

I want hoagies
unfurled from cold foil. . . .

O beautiful possibilities
like second-base in a parked car . . .

Or these in “Portrait of a Merwoman”:

I was a mermaid martyr
who lusted after those boots.
Then winter came.

The black pond froze
its black-eyed octopi,
and I formed my own stomach fat

into a gourmet doughnut.

Working at the intersections of the hunger-desire rubric, Kuan activates the nearly uncontrollable innuendo function when language is charged with the slightest hint of sexuality. The excesses of Super Bowl Sunday border on Roman orgy, a hoagie is never just a hoagie, and who could ever look at macaroni salad the same way again? Following the image in “Portrait of a Merwoman,” these poems cannibalize their own language, setting in motion simultaneous and often conflicting registers of metaphor, humor, satire, and lyricism.

What impresses me most is that the wit, humor, and silliness of these poems do not occlude broader psychological and social anxieties; rather, they provide a lens through which we can watch these anxieties play out their (il)logical fantasies and realities. Kuan’s poems suggest that only a large, generous, wild imagination can overcome these ideologies and the “real suffering” they have caused. As “Death of the Fantasy Aquarium” puts it:

the urgency for art is as real
as any other urgency: to collapse
to the floor from the blood of
real suffering, to be tantalized,
to be a plain pink pill
inserted into a jumbo marshmallow
and eaten whole by hand

Here Kuan deftly suggests that the “art” of her poems is precisely this synthesis of medicine and junk food.

Kuan’s poetry opens a space where the hunger-desire mechanism infiltrates language, unleashing a kind of “excess” that destabilizes the Victorian codes of etiquette that would confine women’s desires and ambitions to a solitary binge in the boudoir. But the book never feels like simple social commentary. Even in poems that feel strongly satirical, Kuan animates a disarming lyricism by creating a vulnerable speaker in the position of the desiring subject. For example, take “Fantasy Poodle,” a daffy piece that imagines a wad of cash as a poodle on a leash from which the speaker doles out dollar bills to anyone who needs them. The scenario’s absurdity belies a wish to live altruistically and the speaker’s quest for an “inner peace.” When down to her last dollar, she ends up buying coconut flakes: “Do you know about this? / If you get very quiet, coconut flakes sound like inner peace when squished. / Even more so if you brush them with a very fine brush.” I love the delighted “Do you know about this?” which I hear mostly as a whispered, irrepressible desire to share a profound discovery. Ultimately this poem seems to satirize the philanthropic and spiritual ambitions of the poodle-owning class at the same time that it perfectly reveals a push-pull, give-take economy to the problem of self-fulfillment. The poem is hilarious, socially perceptive, and surprisingly zen-like in its final image of brushing coconut flakes.

As I think the coconut flakes make clear, Kuan’s Lunch Portraits ultimately moves toward a kind of readerly pleasure, a destination rarely glimpsed in work that addresses matters of social urgency. This is, after all, lunch—a time when, if we’re lucky, we can indulge our appetites during a reprieve from the task-minded obligations of the day.

Nathan Hoks is the author of Reveilles, The Narrow Circle, and the chapbook Moony Days of Being, forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago, and codirects Convulsive Editions, a micro-press that publishes handmade books of poems.