Julie Swarstad Johnson
Unicorn Press 2019
$18; ISBN 978-0-87775-058-1, 91 pages
Editor’s Choice Selection, Unicorn Press First Book Series
Reviewed by Carolyn Ogburn
Industrial furnaces were the mechanized heart of many 19th century industrial townships. Through these furnaces, forests were converted to charcoal and coal smelted to iron. Today, all that remains are traces of brick, stone, and iron chimneys. In her debut collection, Pennsylvania Furnace, Julie Swarstad Johnson listens to the voices of those who lived in the towns created by the burgeoning industry: the widow whose cut wood purchases food for her children, the wife of the itinerant minister, those found only in the margins of company record books. What calls her attention is what’s left out, as she writes in the collection’s opening poem, “What the Gaps Reveal at Swatara Furnace”:
I can hear the noiseless song
of the multitude, of the spiders living
on what we left behind, finding use
not in the thing itself, but in what
it opened, the gaps in its story.
One particularly vivid gap is between the optimism of those who believed that industrial solutions would bring about a wondrous new age and Johnson’s contemporary awareness of a future environmental devastation that we’re only starting to recognize. “Meditation for Polly” evokes both the pleasant comfort of a warm stove, a new bride’s dress catching fire, forty thousand acres of peat burning in North Carolina, and the mine at Centralia (“burning for fifty years” underground). I confess, this called to mind for me recent images of Australia shown from satellite, lit with wildfires that have been burning for months.
Another poem, “A Brief History of Illumination by Gas Lamp,” opens with a simple image of light: a child “leans over paper, neck/crooked like a stalk of Queen Anne’s lace weighted/by blossoms.” A child able to read through the power of light; simultaneously “poorer children” work through factories’ now-lit night. “Two hundred years later,” and the poet must blanket the windows to block the ceaseless light, and North Dakota burns off surplus natural gasoline: “cheaper to flood the sky/with those gas flares than to pipe it across the prairie.” Johnson seems to be inviting the reader to look more closely at the elements of our lives which we may have traditionally associated with comfort and consider how they may be implicated in our impending social and climate disaster.
If Johnson’s poems swiftly leap from the domestic to the apocalyptic, so too do they hopscotch between place and time. The ashy woodlands of 19th century Pennsylvania and the present day Arizona desert offer twinned selves, rarely speaking directly to one another. Poems set in Ace Hardware and big box stores are found alongside kitchen fires and hand-cut logs, masking tape beside a columbine blossom pressed and folded into a diary. Alongside furnaces, rivers thread the book: “What the Susquehanna Tells Me About Blood” calls upon “the river’s ceaseless repair,” the “Rivers of Arizona” “speak/the language of light, midday sun/or moonglow filling them more often/than rainwater,” and Phoenix’s Salt River, “…a site for drunkenness, sharp glass, staggering lines…”. The poem “Passage” holds a river that has
picked itself up, walked up
into the sky with feet that crush
the oaks and white pines against the ridges.
The river in the sky wants to unlatch
every window. It feels itself slowed there,
turned to glass.
These are lyric, open-hearted poems in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, with careful attention to both the intimate, sensual encounter and the broad setting of the land. The collection takes its epigraph from Claudia Emerson’s poem “Inheritance,” in which she likens the poet to a thief of the “vain detail I love.” America, in Johnson’s telling, shifts from manifest destiny to troubled, if beloved, inheritance. Like America, there are many gaps through which what’s left unspoken shines.
The Broadsided Poem in the Book:
“Final Descent into Phoenix,” Broadside with art by Kara Page (published March 1, 2017)
3 Questions from Broadsided; 3 Answers from Julie Swarstad Johnson
Bsided: You use, or evoke, biblical language frequently throughout your poems, and your evocation of rivers throughout this collection, which you’ve occasionally referenced in the context of the biblical text as well, was particularly moving to me. Can you talk more about your connection to these texts or to the spiritual tradition they convey?
Johnson: Thank you so much for the time and care you’ve given to reading my work. Being a Christian is, for me, the most important aspect of my life, and I belong to a particular tradition within the church that values knowing scripture—not just reading it but attempting to live in the reality of what it proclaims. As an adult, I’ve chosen to belong to first a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania and now an Evangelical Friends (Quaker) church in Tucson. I was drawn to these traditions because of their emphasis on simplicity, peace, gentleness, honesty—characteristics that come largely from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount but that one can also see playing out in the early church throughout the New Testament. Reading, studying, praying, and singing scripture are deeply important to me, so scripture makes its way into my writing because of its presence in my daily life.
I’m not sure that I consciously linked rivers and scripture as I wrote Pennsylvania Furnace, but in retrospect, some of my favorite passages from scripture include rivers: the “river whose streams make glad the city of God” from Psalm 46 or the life-giving river of God in Ezekiel 47. When I moved to Pennsylvania, the sheer volume of water moving through the landscape captivated me. I remember someone saying to me that central Pennsylvania has relatively few bodies of water compared to wherever they were from, and I couldn’t even imagine how that could be true, having come myself from a place where very few rivers flow year-round. Water seems particularly precious and sometimes even miraculous to me, so I can see how I might connect it subconsciously to scripture.
Bsided: You talk about inheritance in several poems, which strikes me as a particularly American element of your poems. For example, “Phoenix, Arizona,” and in “What the Susquehanna Tells Me about Blood.” In other words, there seems to be a sense of ownership that goes deeper than your chronological years in each place. Would you say that inheritance imbues a sense of belonging, or is there something about it that instills caution? Or both?
Johnson: A sense of belonging mingled with caution would describe many poems in this book! But rather than ownership, I hope my work expresses a sense of respect for or responsibility to places, both in terms of the land itself and people who are sustained by it. Living in Arizona, I get frustrated by the continuing flow of people moving here from out of state because the size of our cities is already so unsustainable, but my parents were those people at one point; I can be distraught about smog, but I still choose to live in a city that privileges owning and using a car. Living in Pennsylvania was an interesting experience for me in part because a substantial portion of my family is from there or still lives there, but I had only visited once before moving there in 2011, and I didn’t move to exactly the part of the state my family was from. It felt like a place I should know but that I also didn’t know at all. That unfamiliarity drove me to want to know it as deeply as I could. The relatively short amount of time I lived there limited that in some ways—I had to leave behind that place and the community I belonged to just at the moment that I was starting to feel at home—but it also prompted me to see Arizona differently and to think more deeply about my connection to place and community here.
Bsided: The poem “Final Descent into Phoenix,” which was made into a broadside, is in the very center of the collection. Your other poems tend to be rooted at the level of the earth, through your own sense of place and through the voices of those you evoke (the woodcutter, the ironmaster’s daughter) that this poem comes as a kind of surprise. Looking out the windows of a plane circling to land, longing to be home, perhaps certain for once that you will be home when you land… it made me wonder if there’s something about not quite arriving in a place that sparks a particular creative response?
Johnson: I had never thought about “Final Descent into Phoenix” this way, as literally coming from a different perspective than the other poems, but it’s a true and interesting observation. I was nineteen the first time I flew, so even by the time I was writing this poem, in my mid-twenties, the sight of Phoenix from the air was still a surprise. That overview of the city revealing it to be both appalling and entrancing. Walking and hiking are two of my favorite activities, so it makes sense to me that my imagination typically lives at ground level. The poems focused on the iron industry came out both archival research and physically exploring the area around where I lived in Pennsylvania. My husband and I would go out looking for old furnace stacks, some of which were relatively easy to find while others required treks into the woods, the stacks almost invisible behind thick vegetation. When I think of the experiences that went into writing these poems, I picture real, particular places experienced on the ground. “Final Descent into Phoenix” tries to confront the whole of what that city might mean, seen from a distance even as that distance disappears with landing.
Uneasiness—that not quite arriving, whether slight or pronounced—makes a poem possible, I think. Many, many poets have talked and written about the importance of surprise in a poem, not just for the reader but for the writer in the process of writing as well, and I think it is uneasiness or uncertainty that makes surprise possible. Pennsylvania Furnace as a whole arguably springs out of an experience of disruption and what it opens up.
Bsided: I love the way this collection was organized. It feels very intuitive to me, the way one poem follows another, though they may not share location or theme, and may be set in different centuries. Could you talk more about this?
Johnson: I’m so glad those intuitive connections come through. Before Pennsylvania Furnace found a publisher, it felt like a risk to organize the collection that way because there’s potential for confusion. The poet Jamaal May visited Penn State during the time when I was organizing the earliest draft of this book, and he talked about taking an organic approach to arrangement, looking for resonant themes or images to connect poems rather than grouping things together by topic. His first book Hum (2013) does this brilliantly, and his approach stuck with me. I chose to organize Pennsylvania Furnace organically because to me, even as the poems jump across time and location, the themes they consider carry through—the particularity of place, the fall-out of industry, living layers of memory. The poems focused on Pennsylvania in the past are the earliest ones I wrote, and at that time, I felt very resistant to writing about myself. I’m still somewhat reticent about my life, but leaving Pennsylvania before I felt completely finished with this book led me to bring myself in the present into the book more clearly and to identify why I asked the questions about the past that I did. Having worked on this book over something like seven or eight years, I can imagine a number of different ways that I could have taken it, but I ultimately chose to write it as it is, pairing my own journey across the country and back again with a journey into the scraps and fragments of the past.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she does any number of things for love and for money. She recently received the 2019 Peden Prize for her story, “Ordinary Time,” published in The Missouri Review. She has been a regular blogger for Ploughshares, and a contributing editor for Numero Cinq. She’s received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and fellowships from Ragdale Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
About Broadsides to Books: To honor and celebrate the writers we’ve published, we began Broadsides to Books in the spring of 2018. Here, we feature brief mini-reviews of books by Broadsided authors followed by a few questions about how broadside and book connect.