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.