Sara Henning is the author of the poetry collections Burn (Southern Illinois University Press, 2024), a 2022 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Editor’s Selection; Terra Incognita (Ohio University Press, 2022), winner of the 2021 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize; and View from True North (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and the 2019 High Plains Book Award. She was awarded the 2019 Poetry Society of America's George Bogin Memorial Award. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Marshall University, where she coordinates the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series.
You are a muscadine, Lord your sweet is sharp-musked a hymn slip-skinned
over a battery of seeds to sow I can see them untrussed beneath
your rupture of sugar Lord you’ve tethered me to that heaven of soothe
I’ve bitten through every mercy to get to it but you are the stone (which stone?)
in the dark Lord the pit in my husband’s kidney its whorl on the MRI
muscled into crystal and I’m thinking how in the bathroom Lord
he was like a boy my husband arched around the toilet and I snatched him up
all bear hug and fisted collar wrestled his mortal coil into my car I watched
ER nurses thread his veins with needles anoint his chest with monitors
unleash an I.V. drip of morphine into his blood it was hours until
the three-millimeter mine at the center of his kidney was snitched out little coup
of calcium set to bivouac his urethra its plan to rage through his sweet shaft
until the stone crested loose yes to translate the stone in my love’s kidney
is to translate a world unknown to me I think of the cells in my mother’s body
how cancer slunk incognito between lymph and vessel the epithelial walls
like wet silk cancer slipping fugitively through the skein of capillary
after capillary Bonnie to her Clyde my mother thought escaping her father’s
my father’s hands made her some force skilled at sassing disaster
so when I said something’s wrong when I said the word doctor she came at me
what I mean is she was not my mother but an animal slashing delirious
until I shut my mouth but my husband Oh, Lord I shunted his body into my car
no alibi could blunt that pain radiating out of him because my love
is sharp-musked as yours, Lord another hymn of hardness that could
begin or end a world like you like you Lord, if you’re thinking
of rapturing him up past the scrim of breath if you’re dead set
on slipping him into an ether other than mine you’ll have to drown me
in a sea of locusts you’ll have to batter my heart1 ice me in a pillar of salt Lord
if you so much look at my man I’ll come at you raging spitting
you’ll have to kill me if you want to carry him home
1 This references John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”
STILL LIFE WITH SMOKE
How many losses does it take to stop a heart,
To lay waste to the vocabularies of desire?
—Dorianne Laux, “Last Words”
These days, my mother’s sultry
hoodoo is a siren call of satin,
an effigy ribboning its lost body
sheer through my lungs. Calla
-shaped, her petals pilfer a dusky
exodus so hard and fast I believe
a tumor in my brain is the root
of this olfactory seizure-of-the-soul,
some cellular malware triggering
her lapsed kingdom come. Every
-where I go, my heart is hijacked
by menthol, a rich bevvy of ash.
It started with dreams. Weeks after
she died, a field of petals, flies
clung as if to the skin of a plum.
Even in dreams, death is the mother
of beauty2. In another, liver necrosis
tarnished her face to a nude rush
of ochre, as if cancer were a boy
smitten with a spray can’s reckless
bliss, a train depot, this child
offering up his name-sake in strokes
of graffiti. I’m looking for smoke
like the lush tail of a fox. Smoke
like a pleasure instead of mercy.
Always some breach of body
and air. The last time I saw her
alive, she was a corpse shitting
blood, not a mother. But now,
she’s minx-heady, a musk
in the heat. She’s silt on my skin.
What’s left of her body—
I’m taken. I’m steeped. Oh God,
she’s all over my clothes.
2 From “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens
WE SUFFER EACH OTHER TO HAVE EACH OTHER AWHILE3
In the belly of every summer day is a God
taking its first breath, so I learn to call it praying,
my mother forsaking the AC for a grace called smoking
in the car. I watch her pry the window’s handle as it jammed
mid-crank, clench the sultry juts of plastic cutting
her palms. I watch her jimmy it loose for any cool
we could ratchet through glass. I watch my mother pull
on a spit-slick filter, exhale a dusky ghost
ribboning through the car as we sweat and cruise.
Each hit a blitz of nicotine. A prophesy of what’s
to come. I watch her brake, then brandish her arm,
her body a human seatbelt shielding my skin.
I close my eyes. I steady myself in my seat.
From another car over, I look like I’m on my knees.
3Poem's title originates from Li-Young Lee
LEARNING TO HIT MY MOTHER
I was five when our tom tore his way into my box
spring mattress, helixed his body through a grid
of metal and cloth. Begin here, with vanishing. A mother
escalating a spark from thin air. I watched my mother’s
fear ricochet against our duplex’s walls, watched i
throng the windows like a trapped dragonfly,
another winged prisoner of war. I watched my mother’s
vision—fur grafted to tires, guts detonated on the highway’s
shoulder—spiral into fixation. An animal winding
between ankles, a girl too lazy to chase him down. I felt
myself leave my body, float near the ceiling fan
like a hurt helium balloon, while my mother’s rage
vibrated across the house—Rapid-cycling Bipolar II,
mixed episodes. When the cat slunk from the mattress
hours later, warm with hunger, she said nothing.
Repeat, begin again. In my dreams, my mother’s taking
my bedroom door from its hinges, my back pressing
against it, my hands covering my ears. I wanted
to turn this poem into something luminous—a trick
of the heart, a paradox more radical for its sincerity.
I wanted a cat sleeping in a mattress like a field
scarred by lilies, or a girl, her fist unfurling like a sun
-lacquered blossom. I wanted this poem to offer up
an image more beautiful than the truth—I was sixteen
when I balled my fist. Tumors would blossom years later
at the site of impact like a field of blown honeydew melons.
I DREAM OF MEETING MYSELF, AGE EIGHT4
I hear you call the sky dusk-raw, a doe infatuated
by a highway encounter with a truck. The axle painted
by her skull, you say, must have come in hot before
it fell away from her body. I know you, child, by your
metaphors, the way you ride every rhetorical leap
until it changes you. The animal-sky, you say, is love
turned inside out. Her skin, you say, is a too-tight dress.
But what of her just-dead eyes? Sweet with flies.
What of her guts? A bag of marbles loose on the highway’s
shoulder. You have always made song from trans
-formation, the most un-seeable miracles of the heart.
I’ve watched you lay to rest cicadas desecrated
by lawn mowers, call them little surges of the soul.
I’ve seen you cup baby squirrels in your palm, call
each one a hot mess of fur and claws. I’ve seen
the way worry slicks through your guts when
SUVs ferrying the others to soccer games and music
lessons have come and gone. In the dream,
I’m the teacher coaxing you with a game of Simon
Says while our mother’s weather-beaten two-door
bruises its way closer. You can call the Rice Krispies
you’ll eat for dinner while she smokes on the couch
meteors colliding with the lost worlds between your teeth.
You can watch their shrapnels of civilization float
in skim milk. You can bite the inside of your cheek
as you wait for sleep to take you, run your tongue
over the scar already starting to form. This is
the way you have learned to pray. Years later,
the taste of blood will remain indistinguishable
from scar. But now, when she honks her horn,
I’ll watch you grab your lunch box. Through
the window, I see her—thirty-two, tight jeans,
Clairol bleaching her hair. Cancer may already
be murmuring its secret inside her, longing to build
its shrine to a darker god. Before you go, you hug
me, and this is how I’ll wake. Years from now,
shattered by grief, I’ll see you run-skip your way
toward our car. I’ll watch you glide through years
spent already hating your life, though you’re good
at fooling yourself. You’ll smile at our mother,
push your small weight into the seat. I can read
your lips. I watch you lie through your teeth.
4 After Geffrey Davis’s poem “I Dream of Meeting Myself, Age Seven, County Fair Field Trip”