The title of the poem, repeated in stanza 2, is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, where imbibing the contents of bottles has strange effects. Rather than growing tall like Alice, Agbabi’s narrator grows ever more obese. The poem starts with her weighing 30 stone, a shocking figure almost slipped in without notice in the final line of the first stanza, forcing a kind of double-take from the reader. Agbabi nurtures that sense of shocked disbelief throughout the poem until its disturbing climax.
The language of food dominates – ‘cake’, ‘icing’, ‘breadfruit’, ‘milk’, ‘olive oil’ – all of which in themselves are appealing. The poem veers between sensuality and disgust: walking ‘round the bed’ is matched with the ‘wobble’ of ‘belly’; ‘soft girls’ is followed by ‘masses of cellulite’; ‘Jacuzzi’ and ‘pleasure’ are matched with ‘a beached whale’; ‘stroke’, ‘flesh’ and ‘whispered’ are followed by ‘drowned/ in my flesh.’ That constantly shifting lexis creates an uncertain shifting reader response.
There is even a sense of excess in the consistent rhymes and half rhymes of the three lines in each stanza, the assonance making the lines stick together. Aural effects also emphasise the size of the speaker through the plosives and onomatopoeia of ‘broad/ belly wobble, hips judder like a juggernaut’, the pattern of plosives picked up again in the following stanza with ‘The bigger the better/ …burrow’, while the sexual undertow is apparent in the triple repetition of ‘girls’. The seventh stanza uses the phrase ‘too fat’ four times, three of those powerfully placed at the beginning of the tercet’s lines, while consciously rejecting euphemisms such as ‘chubby, cuddly, big-built.’
It is directly following that frankness that the poem reaches its climax, the sensual implicitly becoming sexual, combined with horror. The assonance again links ‘stroke’ and ‘globe’, suggesting a gentle caress, though ‘globe’ is suggestive of excess size. Similarly, the juxtaposition of ‘His flesh, my flesh’ suggests sexuality, which is immediately undercut by ‘flowed’ and the oleaginous assonance of ‘poured olive oil down my throat.’ The reader feels unease at this ambiguous first suggestion of intimacy in the poem.
Part of that uneasiness of response is related to the fact that the poem is written at a time of contrary attitudes towards food. The obesity problem is well recognised with its detrimental effects on overall health and longevity, but there is another movement encouraging people, especially women, to take pride in their body shape and cast aside the crippling media ideals of the perfect slim female form. That ambivalence inhabits the poem.
Agbabi is also writing at a time of growing consciousness of abuse and coercion in sexual relationships and that concern too is reflected in Eat Me. It does not take long for what seems like a thoughtful gift – ‘he bought me a cake’ – to turn into suggestions of imperatives and obedience – ‘And I ate, did/ what I was told.’ That idea develops through the stanzas: the excess food abusing the speaker’s body is increasingly clearly a result of her partner’s coercive abuse. It is, crucially, ‘his pleasure, to watch me swell like a forbidden fruit.’ He asks her ‘to get up and walk/ round the bed’ so that he can ‘watch’, he commands her to ‘Open wide’ to pour ‘olive oil’. While disturbing, it is hard not to feel a sense of appropriateness at the end of the poem when ‘he drowned/ in my flesh’ with ‘eyes bulging with greed.’ Yet Agbabi keeps the ambiguity of the reader’s response right to the implications of the final line, where carnal becomes cannibal.