Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kimberly Johnson: "Ode on My Episiotomy"

Yep. That's right. Episiotomy. A woman's "most matronly adornment," as Kimberly Johnson has it. What better reason, then, to write an "Ode on My Episiotomy." (Not that I have one---not that I'll ever have one, unless, like I ruminate here, I can slip on my wife's. Not likely though.) I chose this poem for two reasons today:

1) It's short. Brevity is everything, I believe, in poetry. Focus and compression, as an editor once suggested to me, are keys to creating successful poems. Turn the innovative phrase, I add, but turn it succinctly; make it tight. Compress experience into the poetic vessel so when you light the fuse and release it on the world, it will explode in the reader's face, it will reverberate through the bones.

2) I like how it's rooted in the body. I've become increasingly convinced that language is intimately tied to human corporeality and that, by becoming intimately acquainted with a poet's words (of course I'm referring to poetry here, but this can extend to other forms as well), we can connect with the poet, with the particulars of experience, with the world, in morally redemptive ways.

Consider the effect of these lines: "But O! the dream of the dropped stitch! the loophole / through which that unruly within might thread, / catch with a small snag, pull the fray, unknit / the knots unnoticed, and undoily me" (lines 8-11). The alliteration, the articulative shape and connection of the sounds as they slide across the mouth, through the lips; as they snag the tongue, "unknit / the [phonetic] knots unnoticed, and undoily" the body, providing a release of physical tension through the acts of lyrical language. Such acts have the potential to bind us together as human communities, to take us out of ourselves, if only for a cathartic moment or two.

Poetry, then, as compressed, highly refined language, is a redemptive, sacramental act. And it may just prove our salvation.

But there's no bias here.

Read more of Kimberly Johnson online here.


  1. Good tips Tyler! You should post them over on my post at AMV :)

    Now, to the poem. I have had an episiotomy (it actually has to be restitched every time I give birth) and I love the concept of writing an ode to it--I also LOVED your poem about putting on your wife's. But I'm not sure I'm understanding this poem.

    First off, I can't figure out what "torquemadan" means. So a definition of that would be helpful.

    Second, um, I'm not so sure about the pleasure in unraveling part. I don't know many women who consider giving birth pleasurable. I mean, it's awesome and amazing and I'll be sad when I get to a point in life that I can never do it again, but it also hurts. And the episiotomy stitches hurt and sting and itch after . . .

    Like I said, I'm a little confused. Am I taking this too literally? How do you interpret it?

  2. Sure, Laura: make me do more homework! ;)

    "Torquemadan," I believe, refers to Tomás de Torquemada, who, Wikipedia and Webster inform me, was Spanish Grand Inquisitor between 1483-98. As such, he was responsible for a couple thousand acts of forced public penance, some of which likely included punishing women for infidelity---mangling their secret parts in certain indescribable ways.

    So in terms of Johnson's poem, this "torquemadan efficiency" suggests (to me) the very precise closure of a woman's sexual organs that an episiotomy is, a process that may represent the historical binding of woman's sexuality. (Johnson is, after all, a Renaissance scholar, so the reference makes sense.) Hence the pleasure in unraveling, in allowing the female bodies' sexual desire (again, a historical "indecorum") to come loose, to make her less "ladylike," less prim and proper, the extended metaphor being, of course, physical episiotomy as cultural episiotomy.

    At least that's how I interpret it.

  3. Here's where I'm confused: an episiotomy is not an act of sewing. It's the cut in the perineum performed by an OB to enlarge the birth canal. It doesn't alter the sex parts all that much--except for possibly scarring on the inner vaginal wall. It's not like the doctor is sewing this woman's labia shut. (That female genitalia mutilation and it's reserved for third world countries and radical Islam.)So that's where I'm confused. When I first read the poem it came off as a sexual statement, but it didn't make sense to me that you would want to unravel the stitches that, theoretically, keep your vagina separate from your anus. Well, not YOUR vagina, but you know what I mean. For me this poem really doesn't work for me because of the inexact use of terms and misunderstanding of basic biology. Hmm. . . or is it possible that I'm being anally retentive? (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun!)

  4. Okay, so I had my semantics off for a minute. But they're adjusted now.

    You're right. The episiotomy isn't an act of sewing, but the sewing is implied in the act of cutting. Whatever the case, what Johnson focuses on in her poem is the opening, this passage that allows her raveled up insides and her sexual fruits, as it were, to breathe, to have life.

    Does my renewed understanding aid you anymore in yours?

  5. I actually really liked this poem a lot. Like you said, it's really rooted in the body and in ideas of containment/concealment. To me it echoes ideas of female desire/bodily function as something to be contained or controlled--I'm seeing the episiotomy image as something purely symbolic (plus I've never had one and don't know all the anatomical issues), some sort of gap or opening that reveals something hidden in the self. The speaker feels a bit unsure about the idea of loss of control or unravelling, but likes the freedom that comes with it as well.

    Anyways, I really liked it. But I've also had way too much theory and way too much Renaissance lit lately, so that's probably just me :) I'm pretty sure she's still teaching at BYU, but I never took any classes from her while I was there, although I'm pretty sure I've heard good things about her from others.

  6. FoxyJ:

    Johnson's got space on BYU's server, so I'm fairly positive she's still teaching there, too.

    I think you make a very good point that the episiotomy, as a gap created then sealed in the female body, metaphorically "reveals something that is hidden in the self"---especially female desire/bodily functions---and that the unraveling the poet speaks of is pleasurable because of this freedom and its associated loss of control. Thanks for drawing me back into the broader symbolism department. Sometimes I get lost in the nitty gritty particulars of things and lose sight of more general meanings.

    And don't worry: all that theory stuff's okay around here. ;)