poetry therapy

Hunger Speaks: A Memoir Told in Poetry Carolyn Jennings Book Cover

Carolyn Jennings Hunger Speaks: A Memoir Told in Poetry Englewood, CO: Roberts & Ross, 2010. Review by Carol Katz

Carolyn Jennings Carolyn Jennings is a warm, friendly, and compassionate woman. She lives in Colorado with her sweet husband, trunks of filled journals and one bright shelf of books with blank pages. Hunger Speaks mirrors her struggle with Binge Eating Disorder (BED). It is even more common than Bulimia or Anorexia and most persons with BED also suffer from mood disorders.1 Carolyn discovered that journaling helped her recover from this debilitating illness. Within her journals, she found the book she had wished for when in the throes of her illness. Feeling alone in her struggle and knowing that others might benefit from her techniques, she decided to share them with others by giving workshops.

Hunger Speaks, Jennings' first book, is unique in that it is a memoir told in poetry. I found myself re-reading the poems in order to explore the authorís expressive language and the many layers of meaning. They appeal to the reader to embrace the healing power of poetry. According to the author, The poems voice the pain and record the way out. For her Hunger speaks in many tongues and codes. Each poem is a slice of memory, a passing perception slanted through my eyes… (p. 9, Introduction).

The cover illustration deserves our attention. Through color, contour lines and gesture, the artist Rosanne Sterne conveys feelings of tension and relief. Titled, A Celebration of Life, it echoes Jenningsí poetry and use of the body within her poems.

The book is full of vivid, stark imagery. Hunger has a voice and, metaphorically, a hand.

Hunger Speaks is my hand reaching out to hold yours in the cradle of understanding&hellips;Let your hunger speak to you, and let your recovery break you open to beauty, strength, and peace (p. 15, Introduction).

Verbal imagery throughout the book is evident from the first poem titled, Sailing:

Solitary I lift this moment, hold it to the light, turn it in my hands as if it were a ship built inside a bottle held upright by delicate filaments…(p. 17)

Her language flows like a river with silent waves. For example, from Marriage Rhythm:

In the dark, the rhythm of your breathing cradles me, exhalation like the candle of your words when you open to me, inhalation like the long legs of silence when you listen (p. 22)

Delving into the poetís mind gives us a better understanding of our own emotions and behaviors. Her poetic expression is bold, brave and honest. From the first part of A Fan Unfolding:

…mysterious month-long tummy-ache gone with the tumor. In its place is a slash, flesh pressed together

by a braid of black stitches from just above the unmapped unknown between my legs to just above my belly button
(p. 43).

And from the last part of the same poem, bikinis:

Summers of othersí first bikinis unfolds into my time to hide (p. 45).

Some verses are so melodic that we can almost hear the music. Let us sing some of these verses from Frog Song on page 143:

In places wilder than home, creaks and groans of frog song come to me: dusk to dawn musicals in a monastery garden, fragments through New Zealand rain, today

from the mountain marsh down the path below the window where I write, stepping stones back into memory and forward into faith.

Note the beautiful descriptive alliteration: musicals in a monastery, dusk to dawn, and mountain marsh. We can actually hear the creaks and groans of the frog song if we listen closely.

We cannot help but feel the deep longing for friendship and not just from family and friends in The Grace of Gesture:

I pull forward, belted behind steel and glass, longing to be seen and greeted, hungering to open myself like a gift to another, thirsting for the thin water of my life to be turned into wine (p. 28).

In the poem: Becoming No One (p. 30), the author incorporates silences between stanzas.

This poem is fraught with such deep-seated emotion that we need a break to absorb her thoughts and to think:

I fear he will see Iíve somehow become eat drink smile gulp numb,

all hunger, no self.

On cue My best girlhood people-pleaser Performs my place at the table…

All the above poems talk about Jenningsí longing to find an inner self. She identifies herself with hunger only. But in the next three sections, she begins to see a self beginning to emerge. Then in the last section, which she titles Speaking Flesh and Stone, she finally sheds her shame and sees a path to recovery through hard work. When reading more of the poem Frog Song, we relax our tense bodies and minds and breathe a sigh of relief:

…Alone for days my pen and I let frogs dictate

poems. Uninvited, loneliness crashes the party, cloaking herself in her usual costume, a shove toward kitchen cupboards…

…I listen to the song of my own longing. I take loneliness for a stroll. I hold her…(p. 143).

Here she gives loneliness a voice and a personality. In another verse she c ompares herself to a frog soaking up the damp, sweet earth. She tells loneliness that she is no longer scared. I tuck her (loneliness) into the chambers of my throbbing heart (p. 144).

But the poem that speaks to me the most is titled: Mirror, one of the last ones in the book. To me it is the epitome of the poetís will to release herself from the bottomless pit of hunger, to find a self that she likes and to tell shame that she is no longer needed. Her appetite for food is satiated and she no longer has to binge eat to relieve her emptiness. Her husband loves her body and so does she:

…more often in a glimpse after showering, before dressing, free of lines and colors of clothing to cut or distract from curves, moments come when the mirror reflects the me my husband sees like the aha! figure emerging from an optical illusion…(p. 121).

I head into my day, and I hope she remains in the mirror at just that angle in just that light presenting her luminous self not for my husbandís perusal but for my extended embrace (p. 122).

I was moved by Hunger Speaks, a book to read from beginning to end. It is the authorís story, told in poetry. The imaginative, provocative, and stark language is an inspiration to other writers. It is befitting that this book won several awards, including three from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association, the EVVY for memoirs, a Merit Award for Poetry, and the Past Presidentís Award, which goes to the one book with the highest score from the judges in any category — in other words, “best in show.” It also placed as a finalist in the poetry category of the National Indie Excellence Awards.

So we have a thrilled new author.


1. Montreal Gazette, May 20, 2010.

Visit Carolyn Jennings' website.
Purchase Hunger Speaks from Gurze Books.
National Eating Disorders Association features Carolyn Jennings.
Download PDF version




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