Boland’s ‘Anorexic’ is a powerful and painful depiction of self-loathing and self-destruction. Throughout the poem, composed of short, punchy lines, the speaker describes her overwhelming desire to burn her body until it’s non-existent.
‘Anorexic’ by Eavan Boland is an intensely emotional poem in which the speaker conveys her self-hatred and religious desires.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by conveying an overwhelming hatred for her own body. She’s determined to destroy it and burn it like a witch until she has completely removed any desire to eat. Once she is “starved,” she will feel like her sinful body has learned its lesson. As the palm progresses, the poet introduces religious imagery, suggesting that the speaker is inspired by the idea of original sin, and it feels as though the only way she can be happy and safe is if she has returned to her original form, according to Christianity, as a part of Adam’s rib cage.
You can read the full poem here.
The main themes of this poem are the treatment of women and sin. The speaker uses religious imagery and detailed mages related to anorexia to depict a specific mindset. This mindset interprets the female body as being equivalent to sin, and it is only through starvation, or similar punishment, that a woman’s body can be freed from sin and greed and returned to the perfect state—a rib in Adam’s ribcage.
The tone is pained and determined. The speaker is suffering in her particular mindset. She’s starving herself and is filled with so much sorrow regarding her own existence that she can’t envision a happy, fulfilled life unless she’s completely destroyed herself. The only peace she experiences is when thinking about starving herself down to a rib and metaphorically becoming a part of Adam’s ribcage where she’ll be safe and confined.
Structure and Form
‘Anorexic’ by Eavan Boland is a fifteen-stanza poem divided into fourteen tercets, or sets of three lines, and one final quintain, or five-line stanza. The poem was written in free verse. But, there are some very distinct examples of full rhyme, especially in the first few stanzas. They hint at a rhyme scheme that dissolves as the lines progress. For example, “wiles” and “denials” in stanza two and “heretic” and “it” in stanza one.
Throughout ‘Anorexic,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when a poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines two and three of the third stanza.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Thin as a rib.”
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader to imagine a scene, feeling, etc. in great detail. For example, “a claustrophobia / a sensuous enclosure.”
- Allusion: a reference to something undefined within the text of the poem. It requires readers have prior knowledge of a subject. In this case, the Christian Bible and specifically the story of Adam and Eve.
Stanzas One and Two
Flesh is heretic.
My body is a witch.
They scorch in my self denials.
In the first two stanzas, the speaker begins by referring to her skin as a “heretic.” The term suggests that she feels at odds with her own body. Her mind and body are not aligned. This is furthered in the second stanza with the metaphor, “My body is a witch.” The speaker declares that she is “burning it.” These lines imply that by starving herself (which readers should be prepared to hear about after reading the title), she is punishing her body. Why she feels she has to do this to herself is unclear at this point, but the poet speaker goes into much greater detail as the poem progresses.
The speaker refers to her body as separate from the rest of her by using third-person pronouns. Rather than saying “my body” in the second stanza, they say “her curves and paps and wiles.” By abusing herself and denying herself what she needs, the speaker feels she can control her body, what she feels, and how she looks.
Stanzas There and Four
How she meshed my head
and the taste of lunch.
The speaker refers to her body as “mesh[ing]” her head in “half-truth.” She’s influenced by what her body needs (sustenance), but she’s determined to remain in control. She’s renounced “milk and honey / and the taste of lunch,” ensuring that she stays in control of herself, or at least, so she feels she’s in control of her body, and it doesn’t control her.
Stanzas Five and Six
She has learned her lesson.
The speaker refers to her body as “the bitch” in the fifth stanza, further alienating her mind and body and suggesting her true hatred of herself/needs. She’s “burning” her body like a witch and vomiting up the ”hunger” her body tried to “lie” to her and tell her she needed.
Now, she is “skin and bone,” and her body has “learned her lesson.” She has punished herself to the point that she no longer craves food like she used to. Having stopped eating and driven herself to the point of starvation, she’s in control.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Thin as a rib
I turn in sleep.
How warm it was and wide
She’s “thin as a rib,” the speaker says in line one of stanza seven. This simile opens a new section in the poem in which the speaker turns away from cursing her own body to describing a dream world of “claustrophobia” and “sensuous enclosure.” She dreams she is a rib, probing the inside of her body in which she’s enclosed.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
once by a warm drum,
once by the song of his breath
These lines lead into a biblical allusion, reminding readers of the biblical story of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. She’s returned to her original form, where she feels safe inside. The use of the possessive pronoun “his” in the ninth stanza brings Adam into the story. She is “in his sleeping side,” a part of his body once more.
In the next stanza, the poet uses anaphora, reaping the word “only” at the start of two lines. Only a little bit longer, she says, a few more days without food, and she’ll get to the place she wants to be. Her body will disappear, and she’ll do away with the “sin” of eating.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
I will slip
angular and holy
She will, the speaker says, slip back into Adam’s body once more as if she’d “never been away.” She’ll be caged there and somehow able to grow even more angular and “holy.” There is an interesting irony in these lines in which the speaker suggests that only after becoming part of a man again will she be happy and holy.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
keeping his heart
As part of Adam’s body, she’ll be able to forget her own life and worries and fears. She’ll be in a “small space” (perhaps indicating that there is still some fear or concern about claustrophobia present) and close to “his heart,” which will keep her company. When she uses the word “fall” in the last line of stanza fourteen, it’s impossible not to connect her language to the biblical “fall” of Adam and Eve from Heaven. The word “forked” in the first line of stanza fifteen also seems to connect, alluding to the snake’s “forked” tongue.
and sweat and fat and greed.
The poem concludes with one longer stanza that relates the speaker’s desire to destroy herself. Now, with the biblical allusions, it seems as though at least part of the speaker’s hatred of her own body comes from the idea of original sin. The female body has grown, the speaker implies, into a being that is driven by “fat and greed.”
Her metaphorical depictions of the body allude to a specific mindset, real or imagined, that sees femininity and the female body as directly connected to sin and as impossible to separate from it. This is related to anorexia and starving oneself as inspired by the concept of Even damning humanity by eating. Destroying oneself is the only way to reach sinless perfection (an idea that is commonly associated with eating disorders as well).
The speaker is a woman who feels compelled to destroy any sinful compulsions (as she sees them) in her body. She is longing to run her body into the ground until she’s nothing more than a rib, returned to Adam’s rib cage and to a state of being prior to the first sin that damned humanity.
The tone is determined and pained. The speaker is suffering in the specific state of mind she conveys in this text. But, she is so consumed by it that she doesn’t even consider an escape. She’s determined to “burn” her body like a witch until she doesn’t exist anymore.
The poet penned this poem to speak about the treatment of women in society and religion. The speaker’s self-hatred is evident from the first lines. Boland weaves physical and spiritual pain together as the poem progresses.
The message is that women in contemporary and historical society have been taught to hate themselves. The basis of much of this hatred comes from religion and the perception that it’s due to when their greed, sexuality, and disobedience that humankind suffers.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Eavan Boland poems. For example:
- ‘Child of Our Time’ – was published in the poet’s 1975 collection The War Horse. This poem was written after a series of car bombs were detonated in Dublin and Monaghan in May of 1974.
- ‘Outside History’ – takes the reader through the life and death of a star and how human experience, particularly that of Irish women erased from history, relates.
- ‘Love’ – was published in Eavan Boland’s 1994 collection In a Time of Violence. It speaks on themes of love, regret, and memory.