Protocols for Listening
In April 1972, the poet Bernadette Mayer begins the impossible project of transcribing for a month, to the best of her abilities, every detail of the full structure of her consciousness.
The first day of the project goes badly. At 3:35 a.m. on April 2nd, she lands upon a reason for it—‘I recorded that I had eaten too much food.’ Mayer’s project is called Studying Hunger because it can be said that existence is predicated upon cycles of feeding—whose body produces and whose eats, which materials get devoured or expelled. If there is reciprocity in these processes; how they are enacted, and if they turn efficacious or exploitative.
Mayer’s project is called Studying Hunger because the intensity that she seeks in parsing out the dimensions of her living is best produced by starvation, by heightened states of restriction and supply. Not of food necessarily—of eggs, potatoes or peas—but of sustenance.
What composes sustenance?
Mayer writes: ‘I wait for calls, food & the presence of another human.
Why cant I eat when I'm alone, whose permission do I need, what is this work I'm doing, cant do, where is everybody, simple things I need—your presence. Some food in the house.’
Food has always been synonymous to presence; after all, both sustain me.
My father is not a man of many words, and so fulfills the Asian Dad cliché beautifully, exasperatingly. He loved me with food and the knowledge of it—how best to crisp chicken skin (hot hairdryer before the oven), how to poach veg bright green (oil slick in the water), the timing of a perfectly soft egg (4 minutes). When I was nine or ten he shared with me the movies he loved, and they too, were about the relationship between food and care. The charming Tampopo in which a middle-aged woman is coached by a mysterious cowboy to innovate the best bowl of ramen in all of Japan. Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman in which lavish family dinners exacerbate fraught father-daughter dynamics. In his care, I was always fed.
To have the capacity, or ability to feed is not a neutral state. For some there is work to do and not enough compensation for it. There is work that has been lost and not a way for it to be found. There are too many mouths and not enough to fill them. A bag of groceries left outside a door has no voice and nevertheless speaks.
In Yoko Ono’s PEA PIECE from the winter of 1960, she suggests: ‘Carry a bag of peas / Leave a pea wherever you go.’
Anticipating the need for food in others; filling it without being asked, is a kind of listening.
There’s a sex scene in Tampopo that I was probably too young to see when I did, and still haunts me to this day. A man cracks an egg, separates the yolk from its white. He puts it in his mouth before carefully transferring it into that of a woman’s. She does the same, they do this back and forth, until finally the yolk breaks from its sac and dribbles down the woman’s chin. It is a precarious activity. The egg deforms itself with every little movement, threatening to spill.
It is both not at all and kind of funny to compare this scene to our current place in this pandemic. The desperation of two persons, clutching each other. The sunny yolk a beacon in a dark room, the delicacy of its passage akin to the small intimacies we cling to. Ever-present, the threat that at any second something small might break; and the world will boil over and shatter itself, like yellow goop upon our very bodies.
After all, we are in a time where it is impossible to be in the presence of others, to feel wholly sustained.
It is hard to care for those far away without touch and those near to us by not demanding it.
But every day I ask my person, ‘are you hungry?’
Every day, when my father calls from Singapore, he asks, ‘What are you cooking, have you eaten?’
When I tell him, he gives (unsolicited) advice. Whether or not I take it, he still feeds me; I still listen.
Reading Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals, I hear David Wojnarowicz speaking to himself, saying, ‘sometimes I consider all the reasons for living and how wonderful the sense of living itself is, in terms of time, and the fact that everyone does die…I don’t think about death very much, because it won’t let itself be thought of. And right now I’m just thinking about getting myself something to drink and eat: a cup of coffee and maybe some oranges or something—something that’ll settle my stomach and let me carry on with the rest of the evening.’
A sip or a mouthful can be all it takes to get you from one moment to the next. Food, when passed beak to beak can stave off our sense of impending disaster, buoy us from one day to another, all the way into a future that will nevertheless arrive, in spite or because of us.
Some days, when living feels impossible, its taste can be enough.
Trisha Low is a writer living in the East Bay. She is the author of ‘The Compleat Purge’ (Kenning Editions, 2013) and ‘Socialist Realism’ (Emily Books/Coffee House Press, 2019).