The Unicorn in Captivity                                                                                 —Julie Swarstad Johnson

 

            There’s a variety of shame called up
by old things—this medieval tapestry,

or handmade quilts’ puckered fabrics,
            their less-than-square edges—

     and the humanness they betray.
I’ve lain awake under hand-stitched sprigs,
            their sagging French knots

a little too close in the dark. 

           The human-eyed, rainbow-maned
unicorns of my childhood

prove it: imperfect means indecent. Slick-
            breasted and long-haired,

     those unicorns are so sweet. Not so,
the goat-creature in the tapestry’s center. Not so
            his eyes, or more properly its—

not super-human or sub-, but wholly

            other. Fetid and wild, the unicorn
is most like a mule deer passing

through a clearing, sandy body
            suited to the slab head

     and motionless eyes. Muscled.
Ungainly. It slips or crashes. It turns
            into a tree at my slightest breath.

The unicorn, even collared and penned,

            looks out at me surrounded
by the symbols of fertility,

patterned flowers frothing over,
            echo of the wire-hair

     and muscle of the beast. I want to write
that the unknown, the wild,
            the eternal looks out

from the unicorn’s eyes. Look at what

            my hands have made: dropped
stitches in the middle of a crocheted

blanket for a child, a ragged
            garden where nothing grows

     unless I ignore it. Volunteer plants
turn my yard into the tapestry’s swirl
            of greenery, alive in the wind.

Tomorrow, I’ll tear them up by the handful.
 


 photo: Cybele Knowles

photo: Cybele Knowles

Julie Swarstad Johnson is the author of a poetry chapbook, Jumping the Pit. Her poems have appeared recently in Connotation Press, Zone3, Nimrod, Broadsided Press, and others. Her book reviews regularly appear at Harvard Review Online. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

ISSN 2472-338X
© 2017