All the Kinds of Hunger in Laura McCullough’s The Wild Night Dress

As much as Laura McCullough’s seventh book of poetry The Wild Night Dress, which was selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2017 Miller Williams Poetry Prize, charts the union of science and poetry, it also is a profound meditation on hunger and loss. Throughout the collection, the need to be fed, literally and figuratively, and the speaker’s obligation to feed and sustain those around her is a recurring theme. These are poems of witness and survival, as the daily and mundane continue asking of the speaker, even when she has been stripped of those who sustained her most.

A glance at the table of contents reveals seven poems referencing food, hunger, feeding, and part one titled “Passage with Hardboiled Egg” opens with the poem “Feed.” In this poem, after the lifeguard has cleared the waters, the husband remains on the wrack line–an image that returns throughout the book as a physical place where speaker sinks and metaphorically as the line of the marriage, of love itself, something that washes out and renews. Meanwhile, the speaker ventured into deeper water, joining those “throwing themselves/into the swallowing mouths//of the coming waves.”

In this moment, the speaker celebrates the surfacing “from elemental dark/into elemental light,” and the collection echoes this being pulled under–by the decline and death of the speaker’s mother and the dissolution of a long marriage–and rising up, at times disoriented and out of breath, as when the ocean itself has vanished in “Temple of Sacrifice : Temple of Beauty,” and at others, thankful for the smallest miracles: the authentic kindness of a snow cone maker and the surprise delight of such sweetness, in “Walking the Highline in the Landscape of Marginal Encounters.”

In the poem, “Hunger Always Returns,” the speaker reflects on her mother’s adage to spend two dollars “on bread for your body/and two on flowers for your soul” and admits that she “didn’t understand all the kinds of hunger,/and that some can never be sated.” This wisdom is echoed throughout the book, especially in “Buffet,” where the speaker’s daughter asks about her period, and the speaker questions, “How can I tell/her the truth, which is/the bleeding has barely begun.” Though the speaker has no appetite–the other hungers too pressing, she can marvel at her young daughter, who fills herself with “Everything, as it should be” and “leans forward with her bright mouth open/...eyes closed,/still believes in this world.”

With great tenderness, this collection reveals an intimate relationship between mother and daughter, a love that sustained the speaker. In “Searching for the God of Science in Broken Glass,” the speaker asks, “Do I think everything/has memory in the form of energy, so nothing/really dies? I wish I could hold that thought.” Though she admits that she has been unable to answer her own question affirmatively, she returns to a memory:

                    like the memory of broken beer bottles
          I saw on a night street as a child. My mother’s
          hand was warm around mine, and we walked slowly
          in unison, so briefly we were one four-legged animal,
          staring at the littered ground in wonder.          Maybe

          that’s where it began for me, this searching
          for beauty in breakage, a way to bear this living.
          Mama, I said, these must be fallen stars.

The “searching” and “way to bear this living” echo the hungers “that can never be sated.” And this exact memory of mother and child over broken glass returns again in “Angle of Refraction with Dog”–perhaps as a way to show the moment lives on; and here, after the speaker has placed a shard of the glass under her pillow “hoping God would take it back to the sky,” the mother permits this mystery: “My mother let me believe this, removing it/herself, I am sure/before morning,/first grace and also a lie.”

These poems, like grief itself, refuse comfort in any predictable way. The speaker does not find some final solace. Instead, there is continued wonder, questioning, and reflection. In “Soliloquy with Honey: Time to Die,” the speaker asks, “I wonder if honeys are like memory–all these moments–/distilled/from the places they came from.” As when the speaker meditates on what will nourish, on what is essential, she realizes, “I am growing hungry/for what seems to be essentialized only through residues/of bodies that have lived and died,” and later in the book, she asks, “do I feed off the dead/who live inside me?”

As the speaker processes her loss and grief and wrestles with how to sustain herself, the “people still living need to be fed” (42). In “The Business of Feeding People #1,” the speaker admits that she is overwhelmed by the loss of her mother: “there is nothing in the fridge,/and I don’t know where the checks are kept” (42). However, she will persist and try to prepare her own children to sustain themselves: “Upstairs, their mouths are gaping/like birds, their own sorrows swallowed for years ahead./I will try not to feed them my own, instead will give them/boards; it’s time they learn/how to hold a knife.”

In contrast, “The Business of Feeding People #2” reflects on the husband’s departure. This stunning meditation on loss reveals how “nothing/seemed or seems to fill the emptiness,” referring to the literal hunger after Hurricane Sandy wrecked their home and the other recurring hungers that cannot be sated. Though the collection gives larger voice to the mother’s death, the loss of the husband is no less significant, as evidenced in “Maggot Therapy”:

          This morning my hands ache
                    as though in the night I’d been trying
          to claw my way out of a hole
                    I am down in, having lost the body

          I came into this world through, and my husband’s
                    as well. It’s almost as if my body
          had come to believe his was part of its own,
                    a connection he would have to break or die.

These great upheavals, “when the tides/of life take us one way, then the other, washing us out/into the many griefs–losing a job, a spouse, a parent,” might offer an opportunity “to transform//into beings we don’t think possible.” But McCullough continues to resist this tidy closure, and instead, the speaker’s final desire is to slip the murmuration of starlings over herself, to have kind of protection that no one could ever offer.
Emari DiGiorgio’s debut collection The Things a Body Might Become is forthcoming from Five Oaks Press in October 2017. She is the recipient of the 2016 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize honoring Jake Adam York and has received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She teaches at Stockton University, is a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet, and hosts World Above, a monthly reading series in Atlantic City, NJ.