Where Was I | Adventures in Reading: Julie Swarstad Johnson

Many of us have distinct memories of the exact place and time in our lives when we read a significant book. Where Was I is a regular series on the Poetry Center Blog in which we ask authors for whom this is true to contribute a story of such a reading experience. Julie Swarstad Johnson: What was the book, what were your coordinates, where were you “in your life,” and are the book and the place intertwined in a special way for you?


Try reading Ofelia Zepeda’s “The Place Where Clouds Are Formed” out loud:


Every day it is the same.

He comes home.

He tells her about it.

As he speaks, his breath condenses in front of his face.

She goes about her business;

every now and then she looks over.

She doesn’t hear his voice.

She sees the soft fog that continues to form a halo.

She knows he is still talking about that place…


Don’t stop there. Read the whole thing. When I do, I feel my breath condensing in my mouth with every h and sh, curling back on itself at “soft fog,” moisture gathering force to “roll forward, unstoppable” like it does from a saguaro’s sides later in the poem, the opening piece in Where Clouds Are Formed (University of Arizona Press, 2008). “From the city below / we see mist rising, mist rising,” Zepeda writes. When I read this poem out loud, I feel that process enacted in my body, the Sonoran desert’s extremes of heat and chill, dryness and sudden dampness living in the poem through Zepeda’s precise, linguist’s attention to the worlds bundled up in every sound.

It wasn’t the first time that I had read Zepeda’s Where Clouds Are Formed, but I remember best the time I read it while sitting on my friend’s porch along Penn Street in Millheim, a one-stoplight town in central Pennsylvania. I was twenty-five and had graduated with a master’s degree from Penn State a month prior. In just a few days, I would move back to Tucson.

Until I turned twenty-three, I had always lived in desert cities. Born and raised in Phoenix, I had been taught to value the desert by my parents, who took me hiking and exploring, who turned our suburban front yard into a small patch of desert with ironwood and palo verde, a saguaro, prickly pears, and cholla. The kind of love they taught me lives in the body, in the senses: it sees, feels, tastes, smells, and listens hard. That attention had been sharpened when I moved to Tucson as a college student. The nearness of the cliffs and canyons of the Santa Catalina mountains, the open lots where the desert reasserts a version of itself, the hidden washes that cut through neighborhoods all commanded my attention. The desert was home.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I didn’t know what to make of the rain, the trees, and the long, low ridges people referred to as mountains, nothing like the 9,000-foot peaks around Tucson that I had left behind. “At dusk a coyote wanders through the wash. / He picks up my scent. / It leads nowhere,” Zepeda writes in “Traces.” I sat with these words on one of my last days in Pennsylvania, along a street that often reverberated with the sound of horse shoes on pavement from Amish buggies, or the slow-moving roar of a tractor heading for fields marked with corporate seed signs. Past the end of the street, the ultra-saturated green of the trees on Brush Mountain caught every bit of the sunlight. I didn’t want to leave this place.

Somewhere along the way, I had fallen in love with the low ridges and long valleys, the rain and shadow and snow melt of central Pennsylvania. A writing project focused on the region’s nineteenth-century iron industry had led me (and my husband) to two years’ of weekends spent clambering through overgrown underbrush, around and around again on unmarked roads our Corolla sometimes nearly couldn’t pass. I had shuffled through company records and women’s dairies in nearly every historical society in my county and those nearby. The smell of dust in the Blair County Historical Society’s attic, the thickness of mud on a trail along Elk Creek, the particular quality of early afternoon twilight in the narrowest valleys all were lodged in my body by that June day when I read Where Clouds Are Formed. It was time to return to Tucson, the only place where a job had come through, and I was still deep in the midst of trying to put this new, beloved place into words, into sounds.

I read Where Clouds Are Formed that afternoon on the porch along Penn Street, at my friend Abby’s house. We were pinch-hitting as hosts of a monthly reading series that night, and we were expected to read thirty minutes’ worth of favorite poems to get the reading started. Abby and I gathered together our favorite writers that afternoon at her house, many of whom we had been introduced to in grad school: Evie Shockley, June Jordan, Mark Doty, C.D. Wright, Adrienne Rich. Abby sat with a stack of books in the living room and I took a stack to the porch. I seem to remember one or the other of us reading things out loud now and again, just audible to each other through an open window. The poems felt alive in the air.

Where Clouds Are Formed had been the last book added to my library before I packed to move to Pennsylvania, a signed copy that was a wedding present from my husband. I don’t remember reading it again until that June afternoon, when I decided that Zepeda’s work had to be included in my list of touchstones:


We hear the ocean in the distance.

It has come near us.

We hear the beautiful wind in the distance.

It has come near us.

We hear the dust storm in the distance.

It has come near us.

We hear a beautiful song in the distance.

It has come near us.

We hear a beautiful song in the distance.

It has come upon us. (“In the Midst of Songs”)


I may not have re-read Where Clouds Are Formed until I was a few days away from leaving Pennsylvania, but I was starting to realize then that Zepeda’s way of writing place—not just writing about it, but making it live in the sounds, the cadences, the rhythms of her poems—was so much a part of what I was trying to learn to do in my own writing. There’s more, much more to say about the importance of Zepeda’s work, for the way her attention to place includes attention to people and their ways of life, and for the way attention leads to witness: to the deaths of migrants in the desert and the struggles of the Tohono O’odham whose lands extend across the U.S.-Mexico border. Zepeda’s work is deeply important to me for those reasons, but place and sound are the way in, through a love rooted in the body, rooted in paying attention to the land.

“We catch the scent of burning wood; / we are brought home,” Zepeda writes in “Smoke in Our Hair,” the final poem in Where Clouds Are Formed. From this book I learned that the scent of home can live in words, alive in the rich texture of a poem’s sounds. 


Julie Swarstad Johnson is the Poetry Center’s Library Assistant, Senior. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Jumping the Pit, and she regularly contributes book reviews to Harvard Review Online.