Kimberly Johnson

From “Underworlds”
May 26, 2023 Johnson Kimberly

From Underworlds




Hell of an exit,
Orpheus:  after all your bang and bluster,
Your gusty minstrelsy that never met


An exclamation point it wouldn’t hustle,
Never skipped a hard stress, pencil gripped
In your prizefighter fist, fit to muscle


Your words through the very paper ripped
Under your scrawl—after all the hours, O,
Years your golden lyre held me rapt,


To hear you hush to a shallow schwa
Of breath. And then, at the end, to no sound
At all, soul punched through the paper you


Had become. In the mirror I catch the stunned
Blank of my face: hell of an exit wound.





The first time I lost you, you were a man
With the mind of a wolf. You’d snarl and bare
Your hipbone for the nurse’s swift injection


Every month, the plunger flooding its flare
Of false wrath into your blood, your body
Jacked up on testosterone then made poor


Of it, your feral temper lunged at me
Then slunk away ashamed. O, the Lupron
Ran alpha alongside you, fanged its way


Into our every private conversation,
Our threefold mouths howling helpless rage
Beneath the helpless stare of each full moon.


When it passed, confounded and estranged
I’d clasp your paw in mine, tight as a pledge.





You were my song, Orpheus.  I don’t mean
That yours were the only words in my ear,
The only sound to crank the strict machine


Of my desire, pulse to my cochlear
Shell that shocked down to the trembling
Underworld of me.  I mean your ear


Was the imagined vessel of my song
And now I don’t know whither it should go,
Or what to say, or why.  I’m using


Form to trick myself—this baroque combo
Of Dante and the sonnet like I’m not
Just lurching around, lost in a wood, no


Direction, no guide—into thinking that
Your loss is just a puzzle, and I can solve it.





Forgive me, Love, that laughter first I gave
Myself to fully while I fresh was grieving.
Forgive my deft forgetting to be grave.


Forgive my first joy, fragile-seeming
As the strawberry vine but finally
Proving hardy, through the late frost spreading


As the strawberry vine. And forgive my
Rediscovering one undistinguished day
Abundance, baffling and sudden; dumbly


Receiving it like a gift I did not know
That I could ever want again: Enough
Finally to step into the workaday


Dazzle, to feel enriched by its thrift.
Forgive my turning back, my love, to life.



Kimberly Johnson is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Fatal (Persea
Books, 2022), written largely in response to the terminal diagnosis of her late spouse, the poet
Jay Hopler. Her translation of Virgil’s Georgics, which includes the earliest narration of the now-
familiar story of Orpheus and Eurydice, was published by Penguin Classics in 2009. Recipient
of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the Utah Arts
Council, Johnson has recent work in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series and in
The Best American Poetry 2020.