by John Rufo

"'I always wanted you to admire my fasting,'" said the hunger artist. 'We do admire it,' said the overseer, affably. 'But you shouldn't admire it,' said the hunger artist. 'Well then we don't admire it,' said the overseer, 'but why shouldn't we admire it?' 'Because I have to fast, I can't help it.'” 

In Ernest Hemingway's pseudo-memoir-and-shotgun A Moveable Feast
he claims it's important for an artist to be hungry. Not hungry for success
but actually honest-to-God starving. If you have the money to buy a loaf
please refrain. Picasso might've been pudgy, though by that time he was only
churning out black-and-white doodles of his dachshund Lump. The glory

of playing poor reminds me of Gandhi, whose poet-friend Sarojini Naidu
claimed, It costs a lot of money to keep Bapu in poverty. What's a fast
without access to food? Sacrifice means giving up in the midst-of tempt-
ation. It will take a nation of millions on food-stamps to hold us back
from sauntering down the supermarket aisles without touching a single

Pop-Tart. Lazarus made it to Abraham's bosom, according to Jesus, since
he remained malnourished by the gates of the rich man, day by day, while
Elijah only noshed on baked bread after an angel touched him, tousled his
hair like a suburban mother nagging, Breakfast is the most important meal
of the day. How can you make it through the eye of a needle if you got meat

and rolls from head to toe? Stop downing shish kabobs and hors d'oeuvres
painter-to-be. Learn to suffer. Learn to be Frida, less Diego Rivera. Recite
this poem while burning to death inside a brazen bull. Recite this poem
while flagellating yourself and watching The Da Vinci Code starring Tom
Hanks. Recite this poem as you wrap your body in bacon for the days of Lent.

And when the holy days are done keep pretending that it's still the Sabbath,
a Ramadan all-the-time. Remember to consume solely art. Swallow handfuls
of Ornette Coleman. Give your body over to the lyric. Make due with the page-
pulp. No orange juice, ever. When your face becomes sallow and your cheeks
hallow, pick up the pen and compose. Oh, they will say, how thin he became.

How dedicated to the service of his artworks. He couldn't even find the time
for a meal or a break.
It won't matter how insipid your creative craft product
comes out – the story of a man is what produces feeling. You are Rimbaud
or Proust or Charlie Parker when your life is in shambles, your inspiration
from an eggshell belly, like a barren desert with a single “s” – no seconds.

[1] The epigraph and title come from Willa and Edwin Muir's translation, as found in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka. The original title of the story is Ein Hungerkünstler, allegedly the name of the book Kafka was preparing before he died.

[2] Hemingway's practice is detailed in Chapter 8 of A Moveable Feast, entitled “Hunger Was Good Discipline.”

[3] Picasso's pictures of Lump (ironically, in light of this poem, done on dinner plates) can be seen in the book Picasso & Lump: A Dachshund's Odyssey.

[4] Various iterations of Sarojini Naidu's joke exist. My paraphrased version comes from an article in TIME magazine from August 14, 2007. “Bapu” was an affectionate name given to Gandhi – it means “papa” or “father” in Gujarati, his native tongue.

[5] Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, but I think that goes without saying.

[6] The story of this Lazarus comes from the Gospel According to Luke 16:19–31 as a parable told by Jesus. Although they share the same name, the beggar Lazarus bears no relation to Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead after he was already in a tomb for four days without food.

[7] After a failed prophetic campaign, Elijah desired to be “left to die,” as found in 1 Kings 19:4–8, until an “angel from the LORD” bids him to eat and drink food that miraculously appeared.

[8] Jesus, in the Gospel According to John 6:35, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”

[9] Standing at 5'3”, Frida Kahlo was notably petite. Her on-and-off lover Diego Rivera, who stood over 6', was not so tiny.

[10] The brazen bull is a medieval torture device, as is the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

[11] Lent, in Catholicism, features ~6 weeks of the believer sacrificing some element of their daily life, often a form of food as a fast. Giving up bacon may be such a sacrifice.

[12] According to Islamic tradition, Ramadan is the ninth month of the calendar and includes fasting from sun-up to sun-down.

[13] Rimbaud, in a poem entitled “Hunger,” claims, “When I feed, I feed on air,” and that doesn't seem too filling.

[14] Proust, who worked on the Recherche in his isolated cork-lined room, was often sickly.
The madeleine dipped in tea can't, and shouldn't, be considered a proper meal.

[15] The innovative saxophonist Charlie Parker suffered from a heroin addiction, causing irregular eating habits.

[16] Michael reminds me that to spell “desert” you need only one “s,” but to spell “dessert” you need two, since you always want seconds of ice cream, but never more than one serving of sand.

Originally published in Prelude, online (February 2015).