How do we love the land, even as we participate in doing damage to it? How do we honor those who have come before us, even as we acknowledge the destruction they advanced? These are the questions that came to me as I read “Pennsylvania Furnace” a new book of poems by Julie Swarstad Johnson. In poems that weave effortlessly, sometimes magically, between past and present, Johnson considers the significance of resource extraction in relation to American lives. Her poems step back and forth across the continent, juxtaposing the Arizona desert-cities of the author’s home with the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania.
Here in Appalachia, where her parents are from, Johnson finds the remnants of Pennsylvania’s booming 19th-century ironmaking industry and goes on a journey to learn about those old furnace stacks that stand, as one poem puts it, “like lone towers left from fortresses / by the roadside.”
Like students of this local history who came before her, Johnson acknowledges that although she’s from elsewhere, “…perhaps my foreign eyes can see / what you have grown accustomed to, what you / have overlooked.”
I grew up in Centre County, but seeing it through Johnson’s “foreign eyes” is a revelation. In carefully researched persona poems, she speaks in the voices of people who lived and worked in Curtin and Hopewell Villages, who kept Centre Furnace, Greenwood Furnace, and others blazing through the night. She meditates on not only the difficulty, but the beauty of these lives. One poem describes the “hellish light” of a relentlessly productive furnace, the “red flush at midnight / that seeps in at the edges of dreams.”
Throughout these poems is Johnson’s ecological eye: she speaks to barn swallows, and imagines a river walking up into the sky, where, “It remembers the riverbed / crush of sand and pebbles rolling along / against its electric skin.”
Yet, beauty in these poems is fraught. The poet imagines a mule team pulling ore, their “ears cupped / to hold in the bell’s songs.” Then she quickly amends the image, writing, “Pity yourself, // you who hear them as songs.” Johnson praises and doubts like a pilgrim, and indeed her thinking is taut with pilgrimage and exodus, with rich and surprising Biblical allusions. Hers is a voice alive with all the complexities one wants from a spiritual thinker.
The poems in “Pennsylvania Furnace” are provocative and quiet. Yet the question that smolders at the heart of the book isn’t discreet; these poems seem to ask, finally: where it is that we live—in a world of paradise or destruction? If there is an answer, Johnson puts it this way: “The mountains might never look / so beautiful as they do tonight, // on fire.”
Abby Minor is the founding director of Ridgelines Language Arts, a nonprofit that provides community writing programs.