Poem of the Week | March 30, 2020
L.A. Johnson “Cascadia”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Cascadia” by L.A. Johnson!
L. A. Johnson is from California. She is the author of the chapbook Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017). She is currently pursuing her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost’s Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and other journals. Find her online at http://www.la-johnson.com.
I ride a horse across the spine-length
of California, shivering in the wet forest
and burning scrub for warmth. I ride
until I stumble on the unvoiced body
of a girl with long, wavy hair.
In the clearing, I can’t recognize
her round, underage face.
She sleeps like the sound of a guitar
shut back in its velvet case. She sleeps
like the sound of stones skipped across
a river. She sleeps like the sound of pillows
beaten clean of dust in afternoon sun.
Once, a whole city was flooded
to create Shasta Lake. Without warning,
the town slowly filled mountain-high with water.
Buried among the saloon and metal mines,
a mirror factory was a treasure, lost at sea.
In this year of drought, children uncover
pebbles of mirrors splintering silver,
like seashells of lives forgotten, past erased,
their baby faces shine in the reflection.
How do you recognize radiance? I witness it
when the dog with three legs runs in the moonlight,
a linen shirt hung out of a window
to dry, my lover’s mouth, broken
into laughter. Once, an explorer drew California
as an island. Its coast surrounded by water,
inlets dreamt as if by a hand with a tremor.
I’ve discovered secrets inside swimming pools
and split pillows, in the adult mouths
of men, and still I startle when my eyes blink
back at me from a pocketknife’s blade, in the high,
unlocked window, or in a birthday party’s
spinning balloon. My own face recognizable
to me, I have been the underage girl,
with hair long enough to choke me.
If there’s a paradise to be uncovered
inside every injury, I want to explore
paradise in an open refrigerator
and in wind that dries your hair. Paradise
in dark lake water, unknowable
to distant eyes. Sometimes that water catches
the night’s radiance without shadow, sometimes
that water is a lake with a flooded depth,
that no one wants to remember.
California is a landscape of urban terrains and wild acres, fires and earthquakes, terrors and splendors—and it is also the state where I was raised and consider my home. This poem brings together the shifting ecological landscape and history of the state, as well as my own personal history. The contrasts inherent in California’s diverse landscapes become a warped-mirror to the emotional conflicts in the poem; the landscape both reflects and refracts the speaker. Through the use of this imagery, I try to allow my poem to exist both within this specific, natural world but to also be lyrically suspended in an invented world, where unnatural things can happen.
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