Ellen West


            I love sweets,–
                                    heaven
            would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream . . .

            But my true self
            is thin, all profile

            and effortless gestures, the sort of blond
            elegant girl whose
                                        body is the image of her soul.

            –My doctors tell me I must give up
            this ideal;
                           but I
            WILL NOT . . . cannot.

            Only to my husband I'm not simply a "case."

            But he is a fool. He married
            meat, and thought it was a wife.

                              *                  *                  *

            Why am I a girl?

            I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
            don't know, that it is just "given."

            But it has such
            implications–;
                                 and sometimes,
            I even feel like a girl.

                              *                  *                  *

Now, at the beginning of Ellen's thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further. Her use of laxatives increases beyond measure. Every evening she takes sixty to seventy tablets of a laxative, with the result that she suffers tortured vomiting at night and violent diarrhea by day, often accompanied by a weakness of the heart. She has thinned down to a skeleton, and weighs only 92 pounds.

                              *                  *                  *

            About five years ago, I was in a restaurant,
            eating alone
                               with a book. I was
            not married, and often did that . . .

            –I'd turn down
            dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;

            I'd allow myself two pieces of bread, with
            butter, at the beginning, and three scoops of
            vanilla ice cream, at the end,–

                                                           sitting there alone

            with a book, both in the book
            and out of it, waited on, idly
            watching people,–

                                         when an attractive young man
            and woman, both elegantly dressed,
            sat next to me.
                                    She was beautiful–;

            with sharp, clear features, a good
            bone structure–;
                                      if she took her make-up off
            in front of you, rubbing cold cream
            again and again across her skin, she still would be
            beautiful–
                           more beautiful.

            And he,–
                           I couldn't remember when I had seen a man
            so attractive. I didn't know why. He was almost

            a male version
                                   of her,–

            I had the sudden, mad notion that I
            wanted to be his lover . . .

            –Were they married?
                                             were they lovers?

            They didn't wear wedding rings.

            Their behavior was circumspect. They discussed
            politics. They didn't touch . . .

            –How could I discover?

                                                  Then, when the first course
            arrived, I noticed the way

            each held his fork out for the other
            to taste what he had ordered . . .

                                                               They did this
            again and again, with pleased looks, indulgent
            smiles, for each course,
                                                more than once for each dish–;
            much too much for just friends . . .

            –Their behavior somehow sickened me;

            the way each gladly
            put the food the other had offered into his mouth–;

            I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.

            An immense depression came over me . . .

            –I knew I could never
            with such ease allow another to put food into my mouth:

            happily myself put food into another's mouth–;

            I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.

                              *                  *                  *

            Even as a child,
            I saw that the "natural" process of aging

            is for one's middle to thicken–
            one's skin to blotch;

            as happened to my mother.
            And her mother.
                                      I loathed "Nature."

            At twelve, pancakes
            became the most terrible thought there is . . .

            I shall defeat "Nature."

            In the hospital, when they
            weigh me, I wear weights secretly sewn into my belt.

                              *                  *                  *

January 16. The patient is allowed to eat in her room, but comes readily with her husband to afternoon coffee. Previously she had stoutly resisted this on the ground that she did not really eat but devoured like a wild animal. This she demonstrated with utmost realism . . . Her physical examination showed nothing striking. Salivary glands are markedly enlarged on both sides.

      January 21. Has been reading Faust again. In her diary, writes that art is the "mutual permeation" of the "world of the body" and the "world of the spirit." Says that her own poems are "hospital poems . . . weak–without skill or perseverance; only managing to beat their wings softly."

      February 8. Agitation, quickly subsided again. Has attached herself to an elegant, very thin female patient. Homo-erotic component strikingly evident.

      February 15. Vexation and torment. Says that her mind forces her always to think of eating. Feels herself degraded by this. Has entirely, for the first time in years, stopped writing poetry.

                              *                   *                  *

            Callas is my favorite singer, but I've only
            seen her once–;

            I've never forgotten that night . . .

            –It was Tosca, she had long before
            lost weight, her voice

            had been, for years,
                                          deteriorating, half itself . . .

            When her career began, of course, she was fat,

            enormous–; in the early photographs,
            sometimes I almost don't recognize her . . .

            The voice too then was enormous–

            healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of
            crude effects, even vulgar,
                                                    almost out of
            high spirits, too much health . . .

            But soon she felt that must lose weight,–
            that all she was trying to express

            was obliterated by her body,
            buried in flesh–;
                                     abruptly, within
            four months, she lost at least sixty pounds . . .

            –The gossip in Milan was that Callas
            had swallowed a tapeworm.

            But of course she hadn't.
                                                  The tapeworm

            was her soul . . .

            –How her soul, uncompromising,
            insatiable,
                            must have loved eating the flesh from her bones,

            revealing this extraordinarily
            mercurial; fragile; masterly creature . . .

            –But irresistibly, nothing
            stopped there; the huge voice

            also began to change: at first, it simply diminished
            in volume, in size,
                                       then the top notes became
            shrill, unreliable–at last,
            usually not there at all . . .

            –No one knows why. Perhaps her mind,
            ravenous, still insatiable, sensed

            that to struggle with the shreds of a voice

            must make her artistry subtler, more refined,
            more capable of expressing humiliation,
            rage, betrayal . . .

            –Perhaps the opposite. Perhaps her spirit
            loathed the unending struggle

            to embody itself, to manifest itself, on a stage whose

            mechanics, and suffocating customs,
            seemed expressly designed to annihilate spirit . . .

            –I know that in Tosca, in the second act,
            when, humiliated, hounded by Scarpia,
            she sang Vissi d'arte
                                             –"I lived for art"–

            and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks,
            with a voice reaching
                                             harrowingly for the notes,

            "Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?"

                                                               I felt I was watching
            autobiography–
                                    an art; skill;
            virtuosity

            miles distant from the usual soprano's
            athleticism,–
                               the ususal musician's dream
            of virtuosity without content . . .

            –I wonder what she feels, now,
            listening to her recordings.

            For they have already, within a few years,
            begun to date . . .

            Whatever they express
            they express through the style of a decade
            and a half–;
                               a style she helped create . . .

            –She must know that now
            she probably would not do a trill in
            exactly that way,–
                                        that the whole sound, atmosphere,
            dramaturgy of her recordings

            have just slightly become those of the past . . .

            –Is it bitter? Does her soul
            tell her

            that she was an idiot ever to think
            anything
                          material wholly could satisfy? . . .

            –Perhaps it says: The only way
            to escape
            the History of Styles

            is not to have a body.


                              *                  *                  *

            When I open my eyes in the morning, my great
            mystery
                         stands before me . . .

            –I know that I am intelligent; therefore

            the inability not to fear food
            day-and-night; this unending hunger
            ten minutes after I have eaten . . .
                                                               a childish

            dread of eating; hunger which can have no cause,–

            half my mind says that all this
            is demeaning . . .

                                      Bread
            for days on end
            drives all real thought from my brain . . .

            –Then I think, No. The ideal of being thin

            conceals the ideal
            not to have a body–;
                                            which is NOT trivial . . .

            This wish seems now as much a "given" of my existence

            as the intolerable
            fact that I am dark-complexioned; big-boned;
            and once weighed
            one hundred and sixty-five pounds . . .

            –But then I think, No. That's too simple,–

            without a body, who can
            know himself at all?
                                          Only by
            acting; choosing; rejecting; have I

            made myself–
                                 discovered who and what Ellen can be . . .

            –But then again I think, NO. This I is anterior
            to name; gender; action;
            fashion;
                         MATTER ITSELF,–

            . . . trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
            is like trying to appease thirst
                                                         with ink.

                              *                  *                  *

March 30. Result of the consultation: Both gentlemen agree completely with my prognosis and doubt any therapeutic usefulness of commitment even more emphatically than I. All three of us are agreed that it is not a case of obsessional neurosis and not one of manic-depressive psychosis, and that no definitely reliable therapy is possible. We therefore resolved to give in to the patient's demand for discharge.

                              *                  *                  *

            The train-ride yesterday
            was far worse than I expected . . .

                                                                 In our compartment
            were ordinary people: a student;
            a woman; her child;–

            they had ordinary bodies, pleasant faces;
                                                                          but I thought
            I was surrounded by creatures

            with the pathetic, desperate
            desire to be not what they were:–

            the student was short,
            and carried his body as if forcing
            it to be taller–;

            the woman showed her gums when she smiled,
            and often held her
            hand up to hide them–;

            the child
            seemed to cry simply because it was
            small; a dwarf, and helpless . . .

            –I was hungry. I had insisted that my husband
            not bring food . . .

            After about thirty minutes, the woman
            peeled an orange
            to quiet the child. She put a section
            into its mouth–;
                                    immediately it spit it out.

            The piece fell to the floor.

            –She pushed it with her foot through the dirt
            toward me
            several inches.

            My husband saw me staring
            down at the piece . . .

            –I didn't move; how I wanted
            to reach out,
                                and as if invisible

            shove it in my mouth–;

            my body
            became rigid. As I stared at him,
            I could see him staring
            at me,–
                        then he looked at the student–; at the woman–; then
            back to me . . .

            I didn't move.

            –At last, he bent down, and
            casually
                         threw it out the window.

            He looked away.

            –I got up to leave the compartment, then
            saw his face,–

            his eyes
            were red;
                           and I saw

            –I'm sure I saw–

            disappointment.

                              *                  *                  *

On the third day of being home she is as if transformed. At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats so much that–for the first time in thirteen years!–she is satisfied by her food and gets really full. At afternoon coffee she eats chocolate creams and Easter eggs. She takes a walk with her husband, reads poems, listens to recordings, is in a positively festive mood, and all heaviness seems to have fallen away from her. She writes letters, the last one a letter to the fellow patient here to whom we had become so attached. In the evening she takes a lethal dose of poison, and on the following morning she is dead. "She looked as she had never looked in life–calm and happy and peaceful."

                              *                  *                  *

            Dearest.–I remember how
            at eighteen,
                              on hikes with friends, when
            they rested, sitting down to joke or talk,

            I circled
            around them, afraid to hike ahead alone,

            yet afraid to rest
            when I was not yet truly thin.

            You and, yes, my husband,–
            you and he

            have by degrees drawn me within the circle;
            forced me to sit down at last on the ground.

            I am grateful.

            But something in me refuses it.

            –How eager I have been
            to compromise, to kill this refuser,–

            but each compromise, each attempt
            to poison an ideal
            which often seemed to me sterile and unreal,

            heightens my hunger.

            I am crippled. I disappoint you.

            Will you greet with anger, or
            happiness,

            the news which might reach you
            before this letter?

            Your Ellen.


Frank Bidart, In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.