Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kimberly Johnson: "Marking the Lambs"

On the 15th, William's Payday Poetry post at AMV was "Marking the Lambs" by Kimberly Johnson. Because the comment I left fits under the aegis of my Mormon Poetry Project, I'm reposting it here and filing it with my other discussion of Johnson's poetry ("Ode on My Episiotomy".

Oh, and here's a link to the poem on Slate (it's accompanied by an audio recording of the poet reading the poem).

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It’s been a while since I’ve listened to/read this one and revisiting it today brought a new experience. One thing that stuck with me this go-around: though unrhymed and informal, the structure of “Marking” is a sonnet. The opening eight lines (the octet) focus on the lamb and on the communal act of gathering the “ram lambs” for marking (signaled by the poet’s use of “we”), a physical “trespass” that alters the animal’s disposition in, as I understand it, dramatic ways. (I find an interesting correlation here between gathering and marking lambs and the gathering and marking—i.e., naming—of God’s people. Also between this marking process and the marking of Christ.)

Amidst the struggle between human and animal captured in these lines; amidst the conflict taking place within the poet, she who must “turn / the mind away” from the act by focusing step-by-step, almost medically, on the castration process, the poem’s focus turns (in the last six lines—the sestet) to the speaker. Indeed, the grittiness literally “spit[s]” on the poet and, in turn, on the reader: on the poet because, it seems, she is overcome with the physicality of the experience, though she does “try not to taste” the flying fluid (to no avail); and on the reader through the “pop” of the poem’s language (as Wm. aptly points out), something we experience physically in the mouth, in the pulsing of the flesh, as we read it aloud and word unites with (physical) sense.

The focus on the poet in the sestet, marked by the repetition of “I” (five times) and “my” (two times), points to humanity’s sometimes strained relationship with the non-human animal and, by extension, with language. She is tasting and hearing things she’s not accustomed to and, in the process, is compelled to experience her own physicality, her own attempts to explain that physicality, in startling, even uncomfortable, ways. And she enters into the lamb’s experience so much so that she becomes marked by her own “words,” by the structure of her language: as she tries to speak the lamb’s “name” (if the “your” in the final line is indeed the lamb; or even the Lamb), the only thing she can pronounce is “elegy.” The only words she can produce are a form of mourning. For the lamb. For the Lamb. For herself.

A paradoxically simple, yet intricate poem, bound together (in a sense) by the form, even as it spins beyond resolve into something, perhaps, transcendent. And, for now, I’ll leave it at that.