Hunger Artists

When I stopped eating my food
because it was something I hated
(fried smelts or spain or last week's stew)
or because I'd had a vision
most kids have at five or six
when they stare at their forks and see
not meat but the flesh of a lamb, a pig, a chicken
my father would give me a good reason
to finish every morsel on my plate:
because of the poor starving children in Europe
who had no food, who were lucky to get
stale bread and a cup of dirty water.
What would they not give to sit at our table
and eat fried smelts off melmac plates?

I learned that fish was brain food;
that milk would strengthen your bones
carrots make you see like a leopard in the dark
but beer, ah, beer would put hair on your chest
something I couldn't see much use for at the time.
It was 1948. It was still a sin to waste food.
And having watched Grandma wrapping Christmas
presentsflour and sugar and dried beans
for our relatives "in the old country"
the guilt hit home. I licked my platter clean.

Years later I found my own way to encourage
my kids to eat. I transformed their plates
into theaters of the absurdwhere peas, carrots,
hamburgers could strut their hour upon the stage
disguised as parents, children, household pets.
When one of my daughters dropped a fork and refused
to eatI'd raise the curtain and whet her appetite:
"Janet! See that stringbean? It's little Tom Dacre.
You've already eaten his mom and baby brother.
Today's Tom's birthday. His friends are waiting
in your stomachto sing and open presents
and eat cake." Janet's eyes would grow large.
She'd raise her fork, stab Tom's slender body,
tenderly, pop him into her mouth, and smile. Fish,
fruit, vegetables got starring or supporting roles
as needed to achieve a balanced diet.
Down in Janet's stomach the mood was festive
as Grandpa Joe, Aunt Lii or Cousin Spike
came splashing down her gullet to join their relatives
as if they were riding the Manteca Waterslide.

Still later when Dad lay dying I sat by his hospital
bed and tried to get him to eat the hospital fare;
and when that didn't work, I hid Mom's pot roast
under my coat and snuck it past Reception
to his room. It never occurred to me to tell him
about the poor starving children in Europe
or the nuclear family singing Happy Birthday
in his gut, waiting for their cat to reappear.

He had had it with chewing and swallowing;
with taking six different kinds of pill; with
spills that got him into trouble with the nurses.
I tried to be a hunger artist; to whet Dad's appetite;
to coax the mischief back into his eyes.
I told jokes. I sang songs. I played the clarinet.
I raised his fork to his mouth again and again
till there I was standing not by my father's bed
but by a highchair watching a grown child cry.
Strained beets. Glucose. The intravenous truth.
Eat your food, kid. Or you'll die.


Poems by David Alpaugh:

A California Ad Man Celebrates His Art
The Young
The Man Who Loves Better Homes & Gardens
Hunger Artists
Impromptu Meeting in the Falklands
As We Watch McNeil-Lehrer
Electronic Epitaph

TIMES TEN: An Anthology of Northern California Poets