Self-portrait with Tucson by Julie Swarstad Johnson
Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today's poem: Every line in Julie Swarstad Johnson’s “Self-Portrait with Tucson” has me believing in a body made of snow, rock and ponderosa pine, and sometimes empty. With language like landscape and images of what should have been, Johnson invites readers to ask themselves, what do you see when you make it up the mountain, when you see yourself for the first time? Between wash and memory, where do you find light? Will you let it in?
Self-portrait with Tucson
"This is the way we begin and end things." --Ofelia Zepeda
One day I saw the mountain of God
descending across the valley. Sunlight alive
in the body of snow, stepping through the veins
of ponderosa and granite, cracking the air
balanced between. Valley in my mouth
when I mean city, when I should say
brick, tile, wash with abandoned couch,
ocean always just beyond sight, power
lines crossing between that mountain
and me. You should know I am a woman
who believes in visions. Un-curtained glass
after sunset, a mirror and the cooled, vast
ceilings it harbors, certainty of memory
that wakes me in the salt-light before daybreak.
By the road, a man shapes circles that connect
mouth and stomach, prophet’s unwashed
hair and empty bag. We are not coming
to a mountain of fear but a mountain
of joy, a place sweet and yellow as San Xavier
watermelon. I did not know myself
when I returned home from my long journey.
Sometimes I see the Lord’s mountain
electric pink and close in the rearview, and I know
there is still a little bit of night left in me.
Note: The phrase “There is still a little bit of night left” comes from Ofelia Zepeda’s “O’odham Dances.”
Julie Swarstad Johnson is the author of the chapbook Jumping the Pit, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in Bayou Magazine, the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, Harvard Review Online, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.