A Poem by Julie Swarstad Johnson

Julie Swarstad Johnson

Julie Swarstad Johnson

Julie Swarstad Johnson lives in Tucson, Arizona. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Jumping the Pit (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She has been the recipient of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and has served as Artist in Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park. She works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Valley of the Sun

Agency is so hard to pin down

in memories. The pool net slipped

through the dark air and into water,

then feathered beneath the body

of the desert toad. Shook itself,

I’d say the garden bed did,

and the toad’s legs vanished

into the empty soil.


On rewind, the suburbs disassemble themselves, the city’s edge receding. I know, it’s not what you think of as a city, but what else can I call this human hunger stretching out, unbroken from mountain to mountain? Rewind, and tiles stream off of roofs through air clotted with cotton tufts, thick on the sidewalks before the sidewalks are sucked away. Rewind, and watch the farmhouse at the corner blossom, boards and beams sailing by, the cottonwood raised upright and flaming green against our enormous sky. Duck as oranges, grapefruits, and lemons streak past. They settle onto fruit stands for just a moment before they zip into the trees, falling stars in reverse. If you’re brave, rewind even further, and every grove and field will melt down into the flood of irrigation water, and then the water will finally return to the ground. The desert must be there, if you go back far enough, although I admit I can’t quite see it.


Square, that most
familiar constellation:
bank, grocery store,
gas station, pharmacy.


I love to think of that toad
           as a traveler,
the whole world stopped, unmoving
           while she moves, passes
from water to air to earth.
           I love to think she’s
still digging towards fire, somewhere
           deep inside the earth
at a place we’ll never reach.
           She couldn’t be stopped
by hard soil that keeps us
           from digging basements
and subways, sends us scrabbling
           out and further out.
A decade ago I left
           the Valley, and one
million people have arrived
           to take my place since.
Have you seen my little
           beloved, o wild
human city? Have you seen
           my dear wanderer
leaving us? The stars have gone
           with her. The night sky
reflects all our lights back down
           so we know they’ve gone.