A Game of MASH: Taboos of Pleasure and Loss in Jennifer Jackson Berry’s The Feeder
by Rochelle Hurt
Do you remember MASH—that game girls played in school to predict each other’s futures? It goes like this: Grab a piece of paper and write the word MASH (an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House) at the top of the page. Then make six categories: Husband, Job, Kids, City, Pets, Car. In each category, write down three possible options for your future, and let your friend add in a terrible fourth—what kind of house will you live in, who will your husband be; what will you do for a living; what city will you live in; how many kids will you have; what kind of pet and car? (What other questions could a girl possibly have about her future?) Now close your eyes while your friend draw lines on the page until you say “stop.” She’ll count out the lines and use this number to count through your options, crossing them out on the chosen number until only one in each category is left. Voila: a life spelled out. We never took the game seriously as a means of prophecy, but it revealed our expectations for a life defined by family and money, as well as a naïve notion that adult life is stable, unchanging, easily defined. Moreover, it revealed a fear of the future—what it holds and what it doesn’t.
I thought about this game as I read Jennifer Jackson Berry’s collection The Feeder, which interrogates received wisdom and cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies, their desires, and their gendered roles. In doing so, she often references the forms—both fun and limiting—given to girls for tracking their wants and worries: horoscopes, lists, diaries, games, myths, acronyms (remember that ADIDAS stood for “All Day I Dream About Sex?”). Fitting then, that a sense of play is at work even in Berry’s darkest poems. Consider the collection’s opening piece, “I Lost Our Baby,” which begins: “I lost our baby in between the couch cushions, / under the car seat, in the trunk.” Berry immediately rips the seal off the taboo of miscarriage with dark humor.
Miscarriage is one of the many taboo subjects central to The Feeder, which also include sexual desire, infertility, and fatness. It is often in the overlaps between these subjects that the precise nature of their taboo is most powerfully illustrated. The richest of these overlaps can be found in the collection’s title. In the poem “The Feeder Said to Me,” the feeder is a man with a sexual fetish for literally feeding women, for making “the thin woman / chubby, the chubby woman / fat, the fat woman supersized.” We watch him feed the speaker and treat her as food to be consumed. It’s not until later in the book, when we reach “What I Said to the Feeder,” that we see the speaker claim her agency in this scenario by rejecting the feeder’s offerings: “I push out the word Now. / Not knowing if I really want to say / Now I’m leaving or / Now it’s over. // I repeat Now.” It’s a rejection of his desire to feed her “with force if necessary” (an act that essentially reduces her to a hole for filling), but it’s significant that this rejection of his desire sounds like an assertion of her own desire. It’s a demand: Now. In this pair of poems, Berry allows an easily recognizable taboo (a sexual fetish) to lead us toward a taboo less often recognized as such: female desire. This connection between sex and food taboos occurs repeatedly. For example, in “Fat Girl Confuses Food & Sex, Again,” Berry writes: “When I order a pizza, I am a sudden sexpot, / . . . he doesn’t know I’ll eat all sixteen slices, that I’ll make love / to the hard crusty dough.” Fatness and lust are both shunned topics in polite conversation, but the real taboo is a woman hungry for pleasure.
The acceptability of loss, on the other hand, seems to shift depending on the context. In “Fat Girl at Weight Watchers Meeting,” advice for dealing with weight loss sounds uncomfortably close to advice for dealing with miscarriage:
I’m supposed to tell
everyone I’m dieting
& give away pants
as they get too big.
They say if you feel bad
about your loss, go to
a grocery store, pick up a bag
of sugar, of flour, 10 lbs.—
that’s what you used
to carry around your middle.
The contrast between what kind of loss we’re supposed to show off (weight loss), and what kind we’re taught to hide (miscarriage) is evident from the first few lines, but the poem takes the comparison further, drawing an explicit analogy between liposuction (something to show off) and sex (something to hide), and even making a gesture toward a medical procedure to remove a fetus:
The doctor thrusts in & out
just under the skin
like fast sex & the sucking
in like a little girl’s gasp
when she sees a prince.
In the overlaps between sex, food, and miscarriage, “the feeder” of the collection pluralizes into not just the fetishist, but the woman feeding her desires and the fetus dependent upon her body.
The female body has a historical association with lack—lack of a penis, lack of male faculties, etc.— and the maternal body perhaps even more so—dead and ill mothers in literature abound. Lack and loss have been established as feminine ideals, in fact: quietness, meekness, humility, chastity, and smallness (the only exception to which might be pregnancy). Berry’s book questions these ideals by challenging them while inhabiting taboo experiences of loss and lack—miscarriage and infertility. Similarly, she highlights shifting standards of exposure for women’s bodies. In “I’m Showing,” for instance, she writes: “When you start a pregnancy obese, your belly // isn’t for show. What I’ll share with you / is a log of glucose readings & carbs per meal,” reminding us of the fickleness of attitudes toward female largeness, female sharing, female loss—and the emotional toll this takes on women who are asked to be both open and ashamed.
To be honest I don’t remember if my friends or I ever wrote down 0 in the number-of-kids category in MASH, and I don’t remember if I would have considered it a blessing or a curse back then—but I know the lack that it would have signified in the culture at large, and I know that I knew that even as a child. The future’s failures loomed. Like time, MASH works by process of elimination—your options crossed off and other futures lost—until your whole life is chosen for you.
In the spirit of Berry’s playful yet earnest approach to the taboos and anxieties of girlhood and womanhood, I’ve constructed a game of MASH created from her lines in The Feeder. Play at your own risk.
M A S H
“my future // husband is paying all the bills”
“On Halloween, Andrew Dice Clay, / yeah, I fucked him.”
“a rubber, his palm like sandpaper across my back after our date”
“the man six years older who / grabbed my breasts, paws swinging / from a 400 lb. frame, these are too big.”
“volunteer acolyte / in a single seat hidden behind the lectern.”
“Unemployed & stealing watch / batteries for my vibrator”
“There’s not much difference between a circus & a church, just the lengths of the beards.”
“In the stall in the public restroom outside of the office, / I left clots & tissue.”
“There is one niece, there will be a nephew & twins.”
“(Your baby is a jackfruit!)”
“Our baby is onion skin, not crisp…but translucent, hard to see.”
“Don’t ask me when we’ll try again.”
“I lost our baby at a Good Will / drop-off site in Bloomington, Indiana.”
“I ate your balls / in Amarillo”
“You ate my heart / in Chicago.”
“December & we’re sitting / in the Pleasure Bar in Bloomfield.”
“I used to hear stories of the stellar fucks in the back of Tim’s Camaro, the chocolate interior melting under naked thighs.”
“the Porsche he said was / in the driveway”
“there was never a Porsche / in the driveway”
“First session we brought the puppy, / weren’t supposed to.”
“Some ant species eat honeydew: sugary waste excreted / from sap-eating insects.”
“Pigs have thirty-minute orgasms”
“But don’t swat the wasp. / Let it happen. Let the sting happen."
Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. The recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo, she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.