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Shrinking the Uterus

Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review Intern Tahani Almujahid introduces Cathy Song’s “Shrinking the Uterus” from our Winter 2021 issue.

In reading Cathy Song’s “Shrinking the Uterus,” I immediately think of familial tales and superstitions, and I am conflicted. I am conflicted by my implicit reactions: either agreeing with the “bizarre” superstition or unconsciously following it in my day-to-day practice. The traditional medicine we use often falls victim to this category, questioning the “scientific” backing of it. 

What lives in our bodies are words echoed through generations and the way we live and take care of ourselves. Song’s repetition of “I must” followed by what she should or should not do are internalized methods of self-care after the birth of her child, derived from a “string of wives’ tales.”

In the opening, Song brings her mother’s meals to life; the pig’s feet sound as if they were “tap dancing to a simmering frenzy.” Nothing screams love more than food, and Song flawlessly executes the poem’s richness through her sound and imagery.  It feels as if we are sitting with her as her mother and aunts cook the pig’s feet: “Pig’s feet helps shrink the uterus, / which after birth is a flabby bag of muscle./ Pig’s feet helps get rid of the old blood. / So I am told.” Some things we have been taught have never required questioning the origin. This is the truth to us. They now live in our bodies. Generations before us, having used the methods – whether that being Pig’s feet or other foods, herbs, and plants – have passed it on for a reason. When her mother bids her join the table to tackle the notorious “triumphant gelatinous hooves,” it is a blessing and a victory, or so, she’s been “told.” 

Shrinking the Uterus

After the birth of my son, my mother moves in.
She enlists the help of her sisters, my aunts
who appear in full force
with chicken broth drenched in whiskey
to tide me over, a preliminary
dish to the masterpiece
they spend days in my kitchen
preparing — ju gerk, pig’s feet soup,
which I can hear rattling on the stove top
as if the pig’s feet were tap dancing
to a simmering frenzy.

The stew is sickeningly sweet,
vinegar and brown sugar
boiled down to a thick caramel tar.
I am ordered to eat it —
or else in my old age
I’ll have “plenny pilikia” — woman’s trouble.
Pig’s feet helps shrink the uterus,
which after birth is a flabby bag of muscle.
Pig’s feet helps get rid of the old blood.
So I am told.

I am told a lot of things.
My mother scares me with a string of wives’ tales
and my aunts concur.
I must keep off my feet.
I must keep them warm.
I must keep away from windows.
I mustn’t under any circumstances
wash my hair for a month.
Ancient Chinese birthcontrol,
my father says with a wink.
My mother gives him the-what-does-he-know look.
And already, tsk tsk, I am spoiling the baby.

The wind is howling
when commandeered by my mother
I shuffle in my house slippers toward the kitchen,
my hair matted with the sweat of labor,
my mind rice gruel from lack of sleep.
Who would find me
desirable in this hour of my life?
She leads me to the table,
offers me at last the triumphant gelatinous hooves —
silent pearly knobs of cartilage
bobbing like dentures in a porcelain bowl.