Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat.” But for Kimberly Johnson, a lump in the throat has little to do with it.
For the BYU associate professor of English, poetry is a task of the mind—not the heart. “Each poem is like a science lab,” says Johnson, once a science major who shifted to poetry composition after discovering “the accuracy and precision of language” that poetry entails.
And her poetical science is winning acclaim. Take this year alone: in January, the New Yorker published her poem “Crepuscular”; in February, Penguin released the latest edition of her translation of Virgil’s Georgics; and in April, Johnson won a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Past recipients have gone on to win Nobel prizes and become poets laureate. With the $40,000 fellowship, Johnson plans to finish her third collection of poetry, Uncommon Prayer, which follows Leviathan with a Hook (2002) and A Metaphorical God (2008).
In creating her verse, Johnson labors over the exact wording a poem “requires.” The Utah native writes about a line a week, doing most of her composing while running in the evening light along the Wasatch Front.
After receiving an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Johnson earned a PhD in Renaissance poetry from the University of California, Berkeley. The Yale Review says she writes “with Milton open at her elbow but with the real dirt of a real Utah under her fingertips.”
Teaching Milton, early British literature, and poetry composition, Johnson shares her love of words with her students—often sitting atop the lectern, employing the 6-inch deep, 1934 Webster’s dictionary she totes around.
“We are very lucky, we English speakers,” Johnson says, “that we have this supple, strange, mongrel language that has sucked in words from everywhere because it means that we have a richness of availability of meaning to us.”
A self-proclaimed “word geek,” Johnson describes her wordsmithing using the word mulch as an example. “What a great word mulch is. I’ll say it to myself. I’ll feel it in my throat,” she explains—her diagnostic version of “a lump in the throat.” “Mulch sounds like what it is. It’s got that kind of gloppiness to it.”
Following are eight creations from Johnson’s science lab laid out over photos of her rough drafts.
—Amanda Kae Fronk (BA ’09)
What a drubbing this sundown!—its gloom
hunting out my sorest remorses
to bludgeon me with. That’s what the light does
in autumn, slanting southward and brownly
between the hunched houses of the neighborhood.
It falls against the sidewalk like a slab
of meat, like a mugging the passersby pass by.
The church bells bang hollow vespers.
Is there any sound more forsaken
than the rainbird smack across the spent grass?
Yes. The ignition jump of a car
heading anywhere, tail-lights red
as the rubber stamp on a divorce decree,
its diminishing rev a metaphor
for the failure of metaphor. The car
is a car leaving, and then left.
Easter, Looking Westward
The stars! the stars have fled the sky!—
Scratch that—the stars have skyed the flood, the sea
glimmering in pale beneath a starless black . . .
No, scratch that too. I’m all exotic
metaphor, inkhorn snarls, never content
with the unelaborated thing;
always the forced apotheosis,
every least sparrow a visible sign, strong-arming water to wine. So tenderly
I love this world’s profane loveliness,
its small, scarce loveliness, like a puritan
I batter magnitude out of homespun.
Faithless my zeal, for the puritan’s faith
imputes us all with a roughhouse grace, most
lovely in our brokenness, bruised and bent
to glory. Scratch that—to sufficiency.
Start again: The stars are black with storms
blown shoreward; the dinoflagellates
smacked on the shoals leak light from shattered cells;
they phosphoresce the breakers in their roister.
Let me sing, then, the beauty of creatures
microscopic, who make the vastness gleam
See: starlike, after all.
This garden is a miracle.
Aphids dropped with April, gorgeous emeralds
with teeth. They preen against the petals,
distill sweet sap to honeydew.
Down bark, down fencepost, tazzled branches
dart and pull their braiding shadows, a slapstick
of diffraction. Downwind the barnstormers
perfect their spectacle—stiff cloth, wood
prop, 2-cycle engine ascending like a prayer
to flame out, hang breathless, cartwheel
over and power swooping earthward.
It’s all for show, the windswept scarf
from forties matinees, the smoky trail,
the drama of the stall. The pilot streaks
to level, tilts a greeting as he buzzes
overhead, milks the throttle, rolls
headlong into a spin, whining, frictive, the form
of glory, and gloriously sunstruck. Seasonal
the ritual, pinching aphids as I kneel
upturned, squinting sunward for the sleek
daredevil flight, for the promise of the climb,
of sunlit wings, of plain things charged
and fulgent, of one perfect
performance, of earth as it is in heaven.
Of rock, of razorgrass, of standing
water tells the town wherein
the westbound Rio Grande couples
with a second locomotive, crouched and greasy,
for the last upthrust of Rocky Mountain.
Nightfall, and the engines skirl the incline
past the coal mine and its compressed stars,
past Wan Roads, where the aspen
alphabet inscribes the hillside.
Past Sheep Creek, where my father
lost his truck in nineteen-eighty—
the sudden blizzard carving an embankment
from the road. He felt it slip,
heard the suck of mudded tires, saw the sky
enlarging, whitened through the windshield.
Past Thistle, quiet valley town
until the mountain flooded down.
Past Childs’s Ranch, the pond disturbed
by nightswimming fish,
silver backs to the full moon bared.
The railside gravel jumps and glints,
the sleepers deepen in their grooves,
unappreciably. At Diamond Fork,
the clamor of uncoupling. The engine fires,
grinds, returning light to Helper.
Ode on My Belly Button
My original wound was my deepest:
half-inch divot where the cord shriveled off
and a plunging ache that never scabbed
where my umbilical name sloughed away,—
forgotten now, but it meant Belong. Whole
again and joyful when my ninth-month
belly swelled with genial weight, skin taut,
fullest at the center line where fragile
the navel flattened out, its secret flesh
splayed to surface, until my familiar
agony: headlong and vulnerable,
our mutual attachment already
obsolescing, you inherit your original wound.
—Your original loneliness.
Ode on My Appendix
My old frivolity. How I admired
your gentle defiance in my side, your
droll x-ray like a stuck-out tongue showed
sinews fooled to welcome . . . what? a tag-end,
embroidery, a thing indifferent.
So I believed. But when you flare up,
puckered heretic, my guts clench, bowels
revolt, breath short: you prove the searing
center of my frail cosmology, my
dearest intimate. I pick wistful
at the scar, each whipstitch tugs two grommets
open in my belly. In the body,
in the body’s hot memory, in sickness
and in health, there are no adiaphora.
Fabulous, red desire!—these
could keep me here forever. Hours
bent at the basin you spent
breaking the casings burnished
and woody, stripping off pulp,
pith, and papery veil to reveal
where they lay in tight rows
snug as eggs in a wasps’ nest,
as perennial bulbs beneath ice.
Furious in the windowsill jar,
they glint the glass scarlet, like garnets,
your finger gone scarlet from touching,
juiced in the scratch and ransack.
Flagrant you fumble a few to my lip.
No fruit for romantics, this . . . the first
sweet thrill, honeyed bacchanal,
wet story of clustered orchards,—
inside, an underworld of stone.
Spring begins in a fatness of front lawns,
but not mine. I whose blowtorch urge approaches
the ascetic, whose resolve to bury
luxuriance grows raw-handed from shoveling,
have duly torched and shoveled grass until
the baked blades crumpled like old palm fronds
and their upturned roots drooped. Let spring begin
in ash and dust, I say, and bloom as little
as possible out of them. I’m planting
stonecrop, and rockmat, and if the fireweed
insists on sowing itself in cinders
I’ll truckle it to my lenten aesthetic
or pluck it out: I’ll parch the ground six weeks
to prompt by thirst the fireweed’s fancy,
gratuitous pink to put on the drab.
Let it learn in sackcloth colors to thrive
on desire alone. It’s a discipline
I’m ripe to teach. I excel at fasting.