A Review of Andrew Rihn’s The Hunger Dictionary by Lisa M. Litrenta

Hunger Dictionary front

In The Hunger Dictionary Andrew Rihn defines the numerous types of hunger one can feel when a romantic relationship falls apart. In these poems, Rihn’s narrator is hungry to communicate with a closed-off partner. The Hunger Dictionary serves as the narrator’s first opportunity to identify and evaluate the problems in the relationship.

When I think about clichés in poetry, I think about broken hearts. I think about the sacrifice of aesthetic for the common imagery of tears falling like rain and dying red roses. I think about melodrama and over-sentimentality. We have all had our hearts broken, so it can be difficult to write about this topic in a unique way. In this collection, Rihn takes the age-old concept and interprets it uniquely.

But Rihn does include references to love, hearts, and blood in The Hunger Dictionary. It wouldn’t be a collection of poetry about a broken heart without these images. He takes them and finds impressive ways to re-interpret these archetypes of love. My personal favorite is in “Non, Vous Ne Regrette Rien.” He writes, “I was a lover like a pacemaker / is a human heart: not the real thing, / but enough to limp you through the night.” Here, the heart still symbolizes love. However, Rihn does not focus on the bodily organ, or a Valentine heart. Instead, he focuses on a pacemaker—a device that helps the heart beat. The narrator is not able to fulfill his partner’s need for love; instead, he merely helps his partner by acting as a companion until they can each find it.

Rihn also introduces some new motifs to the realm of broken heart poetry. As the narrator ruminates about his failed relationship, he returns to certain motifs again and again. One of these symbols is Sisyphus. The narrator effectively compares himself to the Greek sufferer. As I read the collection, the narrator’s partner emerges—together they are uninterested in intimacy, whether emotional or physical. Nothing he does seems to change this. Yet, he chooses to keep fighting for their failing relationship. The poems show that the relationship was doomed to fall apart, but the narrator continues to try anyway. An example can be found in “To Warm You Somehow.” Rihn writes,

You wanted the souvenirs
but not the journey, all the trophies
and none of the struggle, and who
could blame you?
I wanted what Sisyphus had.

The tone of these poems is one of self-awareness. As in “Non, Vous Ne Regrette Rien” and “To Warm You Somehow,” the narrator understands his position in the relationship fully. Yet, this collection remains unemotional. Rihn’s narrator does not get angry at his partner, he does not cry over the relationship, he does not feel hopeless. These poems were written after the initial emotional response has passed. The narrator finally ready to think about the reasons his relationship fell apart; his emotions will not blind him.

The controlled structure of the poems—each five stanzas, with two lines—develops this tone of self-reflection. The brief stanzas act as flashes of thought, as if the narrator is hesitant to express himself after being ignored for so long. The breaks between stanzas also make it seem like the narrator is taking a moment to consider what he has said. These poems are moments of self-discovery. The narrator articulates his thoughts, and is surprised by his own actions. As he continues to state what he believes, expression becomes easier. The enjambment Rihn uses also echoes the narrator’s thought process. One thought draws him into another as he attempts to come to terms with his inability to get his partner to communicate and fix the relationship.

One poem that stands out is the titular poem, “The Hunger Dictionary.” Throughout most of the collection, the narrator struggles to connect with his partner. In this poem, the characters are only capable of meeting on a sexual level. I love the lines: “I wrote you a dirty story / for your birthday but never sent it. / I just re-titled it the story of our lives.” As well as, “We shook loose of our bodies / because there was nothing else / left to shake.” I felt that this poem was really honest. Relationships can dissolve into mere physical connections, and that dissolution was described as he “re-titled it the story of our lives.”

“Remember me and you? I do” has a similar effect on me. The title of this poem is admittedly clichéd. I would expect to find it in any collection about the end of a relationship. However, like other broken heart clichés, Rihn reinvents it. He makes it fresh and intriguing. He begins the poem by saying that he doesn’t want to remember the relationship as being full of fighting, and then sets up two disparate images:

I’ll say that some people spend
a month and a half sitting
under the shade of the Bodhi tree.
Others cure polio.

After I read these lines, I wondered where Rihn was taking me. He continues: “Most of us won’t do either, but why / would that stop us from taking sides?” Here, Rihn asserts that people have different life values. Most people don’t live up to those values, but they are still petty enough to fight over them.

There are many definitions of hunger in The Hunger Dictionary. Rihn’s narrator continuously hungers for communication with his partner. In the end, the narrator’s ultimate hunger is expressed in the last poem, “Caught Red Handed.” He writes of the better times in the relationship: “Back then, we ran into corners / of circles. We threw our votes.” In the beginning, he and his partner felt strongly for each other. They could do the impossible together. After the communication fell apart, they no longer felt that way. He finishes the poem by stating: “I think we believe more today / than ever before. We need to.” Despite a broken heart, the narrator holds onto the hope that he will find a loving human connection—the hunger for love the most important definition in The Hunger Dictionary.

The Hunger Dictionary, by Andrew Rihn. Cleveland, Ohio: NightBallet Press, 2013. 20 pages. $7.00, paper.

A recent college graduate, Lisa M. Litrenta studied literary theory, literature, and creative writing. She was also the editor of Southern Connecticut State University’s undergraduate literary magazine Folio. She currently acts as blog intern for The Fiddleback. Her work was published in The Phantom Kangaroo. Visit her here.

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