The first line of “Anorexic” shocks the reader with its bluntness and sets the tone for the entire poem. The word “heretic,” meaning something contrary to accepted beliefs, implies a religious theme, since it usually refers to something or someone that opposes the doctrines of Christianity. This subject will return later in the poem when the speaker alludes to Adam and Eve in discussing the relationship among men, women, and anorexia. The word “flesh” is noteworthy because it stresses how anorexia distorts its victims’ perception. The speaker does not say that fat or any other particular kind of flesh is “heretic”—rather, flesh in general is a sin.
These lines continue the sharp language and appalling sentiment as the speaker compares her body to a witch condemned to burn at the stake. The separation of the speaker’s mental self from her physical self is notable. In the third line, the speaker claims “I am burning it,” [italics mine] as though her body is a detached thing her mind can destroy at will. These lines also maintain the religious allusion and the idea of heresy, the sin for which many so-called witches lost their lives.
Line 4 not only confirms the speaker’s metaphorical act of burning her body, but also intensifies the description of it. Now she is not just “burning” it, but “torching” it. She also becomes more specific about the parts of her body that are on fire, calling attention to the physical features generally attributed to females—“curves and paps [nipples] and wiles.” The word “wiles” typically denotes something that entices or seduces, sometimes by trickery and deception. In this case, it likely refers to all parts of a woman’s body that men find enticing (the genitalia, in particular, since breasts are mentioned in the same line).
Line 6 introduces another synonym for burning, as the female body parts “scorch” in their starvation. The last three words of this stanza, “my self denials,” sum up the position of the anorexic. The disease is based on denying food to the body, but it is notable that Boland does not hyphenate the word “self-denial” as in standard usage. By presenting “self” and “denial” as two separate words, the poet reiterates the idea of a complete division between the anorexic’s mind and her body.
In these lines, the speaker refers to her body in the third-person as “she” instead of “it,” as though her physical being is actually another woman, one she detests. She states that her body “meshed” her head “In the half-truths / Of her fevers,” implying that the body attempted to ensnare her mind and lie to it by claiming to hunger for sustenance. The fact that the anorexic calls the need for food a “half-truth” is evidence of her distorted mindset. Line 9 concludes with the word “renounced,” which can mean either “gave up” or “rejected.” Both work in this case since the speaker is both giving up and rejecting food.
These two lines are a clever juxtaposition of phrases, with line 10 having both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. The speaker has “renounced” food, which would include, literally, milk, honey, and anything for lunch. But “milk and honey” is also an allusion to God’s description in the Hebrew Bible of a beautiful, peaceful land— the country to which Moses was to lead the Is raelites—so lush that it flowed with milk and honey. This line in the poem reiterates the religion and creation mythology allusions, and also implies that the anorexic willfully rejects all that is good, healthy, and plentiful. Contrasting this lofty allusion with “the taste of lunch” causes the poem to drop abruptly into harsh reality.
Line 12 presents the same sentiment as appears in lines 9 and 10 but with harsher language and more intensity. “I renounced / Milk and honey” has strengthened into “I vomited / Her hungers.” Likewise, the “witch” of line 2 has worsened to the “bitch” who “is burning.” Line 14 is the culmination of the speaker’s anger and self-hatred, and it occurs just before her emotional turning point.
These lines depict a more resigned, melancholy attitude on the part of the speaker. She appears to have become whole again, her mind and body reunited in lines 15 and 16, as she acknowledges, “ I am starved and curveless / I am skin and bone” [italics mine]. Although she reverts to the third person again in line 17, claiming that the body “has learned her lesson,” this is the final time in which the third-person reference is made. This is a turning point for the poem and for the speaker, as both become softer and seem to slip into a weakened dream-like state. Just as the physical being loses energy and becomes lethargic as it wastes away in starvation, so do the tone of the anorexic speaker and the poem itself as they parallel the behavior of the disease.
The speaker has already described her body as “skin and bone,” and now she is specific about the bone she is most like. “Thin as a rib” is a significant line, not only because it stresses how skinny an anorexic becomes, but also because it is thematically important, introducing man’s role in the woman’s struggle with self-identity and self-hatred. In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, God creates Eve by removing one of Adam’s ribs, forming the female body from it. The implication of the tale is that man came first, and that without man, woman would not exist. A woman is essentially a part of a man, and as such her role in life is secondary, or diminished, when compared to his. Line 18 of “Anorexic” is pertinent because the speaker is now becoming Eve, the perfect representation of women in general.
As the speaker sleeps, she dreams she is a rib, her stick-like body able to “probe” the way any long, thin object can.
The thing the speaker’s dreams probe is not a tangible thing, but “A claustrophobia / A sensuous enclosure.” These two items are an odd pair: one connotes a fearful emotional condition and the other a pleasant, comfortable haven. Claustrophobia is an abnormal fear of being in a tight or small space, and it seems as though the speaker has mixed feelings about where her dreams are taking her. At the same time as she tests, or “probe[s],” her fear, she also flirts with the pleasurable, even sexual, solace that being enclosed arouses in her. At this point in the poem, exactly what the “enclosure” is, is not clear. Its connection to the speaker’s identifying herself as a “rib,” however, soon becomes apparent.
These lines reveal what the claustrophobic and sensuous enclosure is: Adam’s ribcage. Just as Eve is presumed to represent woman in the poem, so Adam represents man. Here, he is portrayed in a peaceful, yet dominating, position. The speaker, in the form of a rib, recalls what it was like to be inside man’s chest, “How warm it was and wide.” She remembers lying next to his beating heart, the “warm drum,” and listening to the music of his breathing as he slept. This description is quite a turnaround from the anger and hostility that permeated the earlier part of the poem. The resignation in the speaker’s dream-voice implies the surrender of her existence as an individual human being, the giving up of womanhood to return to her origin within man.
In lines 27 and 28, the reader can almost hear the weak, nearly lifeless voice of the anorexic as she drifts into unconsciousness, waiting for death to end her battle with her physical self. The voice is feeble but hopeful that with “Only a little more” time, in “only a few more days,” she will succeed in killing her body, the “witch” she has been burning with starvation. The word “sinless” in line 29 is ironic in that it equates with “foodless.” Most people would assume that to starve the body is the real sin, but for the speaker, eating is the transgression.
Once the speaker’s body has died, she will be able to “slip / back into him again.” Notably, it is the “I” that will return to Adam’s body. It is the “I” who will feel as though she has “never been away,” has never become the healthy, fleshy, lustful woman whom the “I” turned into the third-person “she.”
Brevity and rhyme are conspicuous characteristics of these lines. Irony is also apparent. Something “caged” is not normally associated with growth, yet that is how the speaker sees her return to captivity within Adam. Her prison bars are actually the man’s ribcage, and only when she once again takes her place within it will she be able to “grow.”
The word “angular” in line 35 is a reference to the shape of a rib bone, but it may also imply a phallic symbol since the speaker has relinquished her femininity to reenter the male. This interpretation is reinforced by the inclusion of the word “holy,” which sustains the overall irony and cynicism of the poem. Society has not exalted the ribcage as a symbol of power, dominance, and holiness, but the male sex organ has often been afforded these attributes. Because of this, the speaker feels she can grow “past” the “pain” of being a lowly woman only by rejoining the godlike figure of man.
These lines present the speaker in her doting role as a rib lying next to the man’s heart, keeping it such good company that she will forget the past and her struggles as a woman. Line 40 reiterates the sense of claustrophobia that the speaker initially felt in her dream-like state and that seemed to disappear in her pleasurable musing on how comforting it would be to “slip / back into him again.” Calling attention again to the “small space” indicates that not all of her fear and discomfort has gone away.
These lines can be seen as two separate metaphors, both regarding creation, but one is based on religion and the other on sexual intimacy. The “fall” refers again to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which humankind falls from the grace of God by defying His orders and giving in to temptation. Although Eve is warned against eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, she is enticed to do so by a snake, and she entices Adam to do the same. In this sense, “the fall / into forked dark” relates to the forked tongue of the snake, and “python needs” is a direct reference to the fierce, deadly reptile. This metaphor maintains the theme of creation and religion within the poem, bringing it full circle from the frenzy of burning heretics to the longing of Eve to slip back into Adam and, finally, to the downfall she brings upon the human race.
But these lines also involve the creation of life through sexual bonding and, in this case, the speaker’s own creation as a woman. Although the poet presents the act metaphorically, the language is an example of Boland’s move toward explicit and graphic detail. In these lines, woman is created when she falls from her safe place next to man’s heart and into the “forked dark” of female genitalia, all at the urgency of the male’s sexual needs. Here, “python” is another phallic symbol, and once again it is attributed with power and desire.
The final three lines of “Anorexic” consist of a list of human features and characteristics, but the implication is that they are primarily the features of women. But while it is not far-fetched to relate “hips and breasts / and lips and heat” specifically to the female sex, one could reasonably argue that “sweat and fat and greed” apply equally to both sexes. Ending the poem on this ironic point simply reaffirms the speaker’s position taken in the beginning—the female body “is a witch” that has grown into a disgusting being with its “greed” for food and the real or imagined “fat” that results.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Eavan Boland, Published by Gale Group, 2001.