Five Poems by Sara Henning

Sara Henning

Sara Henning

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”





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





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



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 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”