As Vast and Hungry as the Ocean
What poetry (and my mother) taught me about womanhood and appetites
Growing up, I believed that my mother was devoid of the rage, hunger, and longing I saw in myself. And then she showed me her favourite poetry.
By Branca Lessa de Sá
As a teenager, I was ashamed of my own appetite, both literal and figurative. Like many young girls, I desperately attempted to track, deny, and curb all feelings that were visceral and instinctual: hunger, anger, lust, ambition. To be a woman, I believed, was to be dispossessed of such crude emotion, such strong gravitational pulls.
A lot of this stemmed from my perception of the women around me, including my own mother. She has always been a doting, loving mother. But in my teens, I felt punishingly distant from her. She was, to me, an unreachable figure, her own wants and needs elusive and mysterious.
She was also a poet. I knew this only vaguely; having little interest, back then, in the art form. Though I loved novels and fiction, poetry was to me what it is to most teenagers: stuffy, overly formal, not at all corresponding to the reality of human feeling. Everything changed, however, when my mother introduced me to the poetry she liked.
The first poem she showed me was by the American poet Anne Sexton. It is called “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward”, and recounts a mother’s first moments with her newborn. My mother read it aloud by my side like a lullaby. She has a particular knack for reading out loud, the kind only mothers who have spent an entire lifetime telling stories do, the kind that makes didactic tales sound like thrilling adventures, and poetry sound like song.
I didn’t get the poem, initially. I found it unwieldy and contradictory, at once intimate and ruthlessly cold.
“Your lips are animals/ you are fed with love”1, writes Sexton, from the perspective of the new mum. In the following lines, we witness the delicate, fragile choreography of mother and newborn: their bodies, codependent, “moving to [each other's] touch.” The ending, then, comes abruptly, violently. “Go child,” she writes, “Who is my sin and nothing more”. The maternal figure, heretofore so tender, so “full” of feeling and child, is turned to stone: “I am a shore/ rocking you off”, she writes.
Reality has hardened like a shell. She is an unwed mother; the daughter, a bastard.
When I told my mother I didn't like it, she asked me to give it another go. She explained, patiently, that its contradictions were precisely the point. This was about both the fragility and barbarity of motherhood, of womanhood.
I read it and re-read it until I came to love it; not only this poem but the vast collection of poems by Sexton that my mother owned. I read and loved Her Kind, In Celebration of My Uterus, The Touch. What drew me to Sexton’s poetry was the sheer force of feeling, the candour with which she expressed emotions.
A lot of this is conveyed through images of the ocean: powerful, restless, and ever-flowing. Sexton's is a feminine sea, “flashing breasts made of milk-water", full of “unkillable lust”2. Like the breastfeeding mother, it is a source of nourishment. In one poem, she calls the sea “the kitchen of God”. In another, titled “Oysters”, she eats its food — “running with lemon and tabasco” — in order to become woman. With its internal rhymes and hypnotic rhythms, her verse seemed to move, too, with the force of the sea, surging and crashing, washing over and consuming you. Hers were poems, in essence, about female hunger: about raging, yearning, aching, lustful, and wayward women; women who eat, and masturbate, and make love.
I was shocked that a woman like my mother could feel an affinity with such violent longings.
When we moved from Brazil to England as a family — my brother and I still young — my mother dealt with our stubbornness and fear while studying, working, and attempting to build a life in this country. Despite the incessant demands of motherhood, she always kept her calm, never let her anger seep through. She was generous, it seemed to me, truly generous, and endlessly patient. But if she enjoyed this kind of writing, I thought, she must have felt these things too. My mother remained her discreet self, but it was as if I had discovered some small secret of her being in those lines.
For me, Sexton was a gateway to a whole world of other writing by women. After her, I discovered Plath: the defiant rage of her verse and the intense ambition of her journals. “I want to taste and glory in each day,”3 she writes in one well-known entry. In another, she bemoans in palpable longing: “I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. To be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night”. Much is said of Plath’s woe, of her heartbreak and sorrow. But reading her journals, it was her appetite for life that stood out; the impossibility of satiating it often the root of her despair.
Plath frequently cites food in her diaries. “I'm not sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else,” she writes in one joyously frank passage. Seafood in particular seems to be a source of pleasure for her; the sign, often, of a particularly indulgent meal. In The Bell Jar, there may be bad crabs, but here there are “great lobster[s]”, and “huge fish soup[s]” and the “freshest ever cod-fish”. In one passage, she recounts her love for the fish market, which she describes as "a fresh adventure every day". She goes on to examine how the fish tell a story, one of boats dipping and shining out at sea, and fishermen bringing their catch back to land. The fish themselves are “strange” and meticulously described. In her appetite for its food, Plath also conveys her fascination with the sea, for its mystery, its vastness, and its promise of adventure.
After Plath came Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Carson, and Adrienne Rich: all women who wrote about female hunger in its various forms; who followed its winding contours with their words. I went on to study Literature at university, where I could trace female desire as far back as ancient Greece, in the words of Sappho. “Because I prayed this word: I want”4, she writes in one of the earliest testaments we have to the enduring, aching pulse of female appetite. In another, she compares an unconsummated desire to the hunger one feels for a “sweet” and “redden[ed]”5 apple which is too far to reach.
As I grew up, I practised giving in to my hunger. I fell in love for the first time and, almost concurrently, began properly eating again. I let myself enjoy things that had been previously riddled with shame, like food and sex. It would be facile to say poetry alone allowed me to do this. But poetry put into words that which I’d been so fearful to recognize, let alone express: hunger, anger, and desire.
I began to borrow my mother's recipe books and make big, hearty meals for myself: sweet buttermilk chicken curry, mushroom risotto with crispy pancetta, Nigella’s creamy fricasse . I fell in love with the process: the flicking through stained pages until I landed on something I liked; the noting down of the ingredients — beautifully named spices and vegetables and large quantities of meat; the finding of them among the crowded aisles of the supermarkets. And then, of course, the cooking itself, the messy indulgence of it, the smells and sounds of the kitchen, and the warmth that envelops you in it. I was surprised to discover how loud and unruly this process could be, this seemingly mundane domestic chore, how full of feeling.
In the space between poems and recipes, my mother and I grew closer. She wouldn't just share others’ writing with me, but stories, too, of her own. There were tales of love and heartbreak, of frustrated ambition, of selfish acts and unbridled anger. She wasn't, I realized, the impenetrable rock that I had envisioned growing up, that so many of us envision our mothers to be.
In her poem “The Consecrating Mother”, Sexton articulates that which I took so long to understand about my own mother: that her capacity, to nourish others didn't annul her own hunger. In the poem, Sexton compares the ocean to a mother, rolling “like a woman in labor”. She goes on to think of “those who had crossed her/ in antiquity, in nautical trade” and wonder “how she had borne these bulwarks”. The image of the sea captures the paradox of the maternal figure, who is both strong and tender, restless and firm.
Eventually, I mustered the courage to ask my mother to show me her own poetry. I'd been reluctant to read it — out of fear, perhaps, that it'd constitute some breach of the implicit agreement between mother and daughter, reveal to me a side of hers I was not ready to see. But she was glad that I asked and lent me a small book which I carried home like a cherished secret. The collection, published in 1997 in Brazil by Sete Letras, was full of love poems, mainly; passionate lyrical verse devoted to my dad.
What struck me in my mother’s words, as it had struck me in Sappho's and Plath's and Sexton's, was the force of feeling, the immersive power of her desire. The title of the collection, Água Rara, literally translates to “rare waters”. Like in Sexton's and Plath’s verse, water dominated my mother’s poetic imagination, an emblem of feeling and desire. The ocean, with its violent lappings and hidden depths, seems to contain within it the same stirrings of the longing and want that pulsed through these women, including my mother.
For a long time, I knew nothing about Anne Sexton's biography, bar the few lines written in the introductions of her books, and the well-known fact that she had committed suicide at the age of 45. I was shocked and disturbed to discover, during the research for this piece, that Sexton had been abusive to her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton. It was a painful irony, that someone whose art had brought me closer to my own mother had been an abusive maternal figure.
The following day, I called my mother to let her know. She picked up the phone the way she always does, full of questions and anecdotes. “How are you? Have you been eating?” she asked. She told me about a recipe she'd just made, a chocolate mousse made with — “would you believe it — tofu!”6. I asked her to send it to me, and then slowly, tentatively, told her about Anne Sexton. She didn't know about the abuse. There was a mournful silence on the other end of the line, “Well, she was a deeply tormented person. That much I always knew”, my mother said finally.
I explained that I was writing a piece about how the hunger of Sexton's verse had led me to accept my own. “Oh!”, she exclaimed, as if coming back to life, and asked if I had read a poem by Carolyn Kizer, the American feminist poet. “I read it when I was young”, she went on, “and was so deeply affected that I just kept coming back to it.” The poem was called “Food of Love”, she told me. I opened it on my phone as she spoke.
Kizer uses cannibalistic imagery to speak of an all-consuming desire. “I’m going to murder you with love;… Then I will dine on your delectable marrow”7, she writes. She seems to delight in visceral descriptions of food and eating, as if the act of writing itself were a feast, a cannibalistic tearing apart. Her speaker is assertive and self-imposing. At one point, she compares herself to the “Mediterranean”, stroking her partner's “dusty shores”. “You’ll see me stretch, horizon to horizon,” she vows. The woman here is as vast and hungry as the ocean, which feeds and waters and “devour[s]”.
“I love it,” I told my mum when I was finished. Despite the disturbing truth I’d learned about Anne Sexton, it was clear to me then that what her work represented to me wasn’t lost. Here it was — vast female oceans and ravenous womanly appetites — in so much other verse, verse I had yet to discover.
On the other end of the phone, I could hear my mother fiddling about in the kitchen, shifting pots and pans, turning the oven on, getting things ready for dinner. “I've got to go,” she said. After we hung up, she sent me another poem by Kizer and the recipe for chocolate mousse, leaving me then as she so often did: full of poetry, and love, and food.
Branca Lessa de Sa is a journalist and writer based in London. Find her on X @branca_lessa.
Anne Sexton, “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward”, The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton, “The Consecrating Mother”, The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton
Sylvia Plath and Karen V Kukil, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
?Æ Sappho and Anne Carson, If not, winter: fragments of Sappho
Sappho and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “One Girl”
Chocolate mousse, Waitrose Magazine
Carolyn Kizer, “Food of Love”