Pennsylvania Furnace, Julie Swarstad Johnson’s debut book of poems, inhabits layers of landscape, history, and belief—the contours of home. In these poems, voices from nineteenth-century iron making communities appear alongside a present-day speaker’s investigations of urban sprawl and industry in Arizona, revealing the ways our environments shape our collective, familial, and individual selves. “Tell me about your thirst,” one speaker asks; the poems in Pennsylvania Furnace trace the lines of longing that root us, in place and in memory.
“In poems quietly fierce, meticulously observed, faithfully rendered, musically tempered; in the uncanny ability to evoke both the presence of the past, its once molten iron, and its abandonment by time, Julie Swarstad Johnson raises a ‘host of silent voices praising every shadow.’ In these graceful poems, Claudia Emerson has found an heir. Pennsylvania Furnace is fired by the haunting beauty and revelation of its resonant images, ‘finding use / not in the thing itself, but in what / it opened...’” —ELEANOR WILNER
“As Julie Swarstad Johnson journeys east from present-day Arizona, her poems travel both geography and time, arriving in a pre-Civil War Pennsylvania crowded with steel mills and ironworks. There, other voices rise up to join hers, allowing the poet to plumb experiences beyond those of her singular self—a woodcutter struggling to support her family cord by cord, an ironmaster’s daughter trading the fetters of her father for those of a husband. Built on careful research and evocative place-based observations, Pennsylvania Furnace is a book of incandescent intelligence that searches and burns bright as the sunshot furnace of the desert, as the smelter’s molten ore.” —JESSICA JACOBS
“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.” —ABBY MINOR for WPSU BookMark (listen here)
“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. [...] 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.” —CAROLYN OGBURN for Broadsided Press (read the full review + interview here)
“Different registers resonate in this collection: persona poems inhabit the lives of those who lived in Pennsylvania furnace towns, meaningful landscapes across the country are painted with precision, and other poems interrogate the poet's own role in relaying this reclaimed history through research and her own encounters. Pennsylvania Furnace serves as both testimony and historical document, illuminating the need to not just simply preserve history but dissect its complications, gaps, and contradictions.” —ALYSE BENSEL for Pleiades (40.2, Summer 2020)