L.I. Henley was born and raised in the Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree, California. She is the author of Desert with a Cabin View, The Finding, These Friends These Rooms, and Starshine Road, which won the 2017 Perugia Press Prize. In October, 2019, What Books Press of Santa Monica published her novella in verse, Whole Night Through. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Zone 3, Spillway, Waxwing, Rhino, and elsewhere.
Surfaces for Light
Learning to swim, I remember it was all directives:
roll to your back
find your float
fill your belly with air and lift it to the sky—
my mother’s voice, calming me:
if you find yourself in water, roll to your back and take deep breaths.
Of course, there was fear. I think this is the only time a girl is taught to survive
by being her most vulnerable. If you find yourself in water.
This, as I write again to you, I see your body and its weight, its pain in water.
What a human thing, to be carried.
If you find yourself in water could be if you find your body carried by water—
A nearly naked body, so, of course, there was self-deprecation.
There is this story of my childhood I like to tell:
I was an eight-year-old breaststroke champion.
This is mostly true:
I won the city swim championships for my age that year. I was eight.
But this story is also a set-up for a joke: that I peaked early,
which will draw a laugh and point away from the failure
I often believe my body to be.
The truth is still: water is the only place I feel weightless and full of fear.
If you find yourself in water, find your way through it.
The child in me still swimming, her face turned to the sky, the sun—
a June afternoon—its promises and its punishments—
my friend, do you find yourself in water?
How do you make sense of your limbs, despite their weight—
how does your body find its float, its breath, its buoyancy?
My secret is that now
I’ll only ever let myself swim at night, under the moon,
my body and the water just surfaces for the light to catch.
From water to water
In my desert, there are few true miracles.
Rarer still—a mind that knows water from shimmer,
root from lightning stone.
Here, a swimming pool is a marvel. If you find one,
you have to shatter the cloudless surface with your body,
throw your bones in the risk,
dive headlong into what might be the world turned on its head.
I take it further still—try to find myself in water, ask
Am I down here? Are there pieces? Leaves and pennies,
bracelets laced with plastic beads, little nightmares
bathed in chlorine?
Further still, past the place where doubt survives, beyond the healthy suspicion
that I am dreaming, always dreaming when life is closest to answering itself,
when I am just about to partake
in the language of light.
Do you remember when language opened up to you? The unclouding,
that cool brass key, blue doors opening inward?
Would you believe me if I told you
I want to dive down further to a dark that terrifies,
swim into my second skin,
the vampire squid that fits me best?
When you find yourself in water.
When you find yourself at a lightless depth.
Oh how much easier it would be to just feel one way about water.
In the pool, my husband and I would take turns
holding each other like a baby,
which means we took turns feeling strong and needed.
Or we took turns feeling that it was ok to not be either.
The water disorients. It turns us upside down. It rights us in the end.
I want to tell you, poet, that you are still the champion,
that whenever you revisit the midnight zone
your body will know what to do—
make light, flashes and blips, the original language,
and I will watch I will listen I will send a message back.
Call it Cloud
Isn’t it just so—I begin writing one thing then find myself returning to the desert.
So, mirage, marvel, or pool: whatever it is there is
my own reflection ahead of me, dropping in, all legs, then stomach, chest, arms, and face.
You say you want to dive down to a dark that terrifies, which is, to me,
a way of saying memory, a well.
You ask if I remember when language opened to me
and I must confess: no.
My memories are both inhabited and moveable,
beyond my grasp,
something to hold in my body, something to hold to my body,
like illuminating depth, the water you write of, like the cocoon of your husband’s arms,
like the persistence of love. These are held, tangible, yet indecipherable, charged.
Isn’t it just so that there are these individual experiences to a desert monsoon—
a creosote top note, air thick with cicadic thrum and humidity,
the dusty smell of rain on dirt, the sluice of water
down a saguaro, the slick limbs of the yucca. So.
So: maybe it is that we have learned to love in the small, animal ways—
the shadows cast
by words on a page, the sound of mesquite bean pods falling to the earth,
our reflection in the surface of water.
Memories return to me when prompted by another. I ask: where do you hold your memory?
What do you make of all these miracles?
You ask: do you remember the unclouding? And I say: no, but
monsoon. But monument. Mud adobe, brick and mortar.
Mountain, nightgown, revelation.
Call it a flight of doves, a murder of crows, a cast of hawks, a camp of bats.
Call it swamp cooler, call it shake and rattle, call it cicada, call it
chlorine, call it surprise, barrel cactus, deluge, call it family, call it memory.
I remember my grandmother used to say all dressed up with nowhere to go
and I remember I loved
the song of this sentence, its sway and rhythm, its shimmy and sparkle. Its just so.
Language arrives and opens.
So: call it cloud, call it lightning storm, call it risk. I say postscript, I say promise.
I say: look at your reflection in the water and then,
shatter its glass.
That sound follows light
Friend, we inhabit the same spell
of thunderstorms, careen somewhere between
burst and break,
run for cover in the suddenness
and in the pause
try to conjure a new deluge.
And sometimes the gathering of molecules is enough.
I know it’s true because
when you said the sound of mesquite bean pods falling to earth,
I landed lightly in my chair,
not knowing I’d been hovering
just so, lightly as when I was a seed,
so papery small, an eyelash caught
on the cloak of infinity.
Yet here I am at 34 with my billions of cells,
the lightest of sleepers, every whisper from every unusual cloud
unfurling me from the tuck of dark.
I am wakeful, still reeling from the act of being born,
the miracle (or were there several?)
of growing limbs, two hands to cover my face,
toes to suck in my simple mouth.
That cells harden for our benefit ossify into spinal chord
uncurl us from our tunneled gaze—
know what I mean?
It’s enough to keep me sleepless until the day I die.
And, friend, I don’t believe death will be
any kind of miracle,
just a wrestling match that wears
me out, then further out, all the way out.
There is no sorrow in this, though I am awake and at my window again.
Does this ever happen to you?
A too late meal, the dog snoring triumphantly,
then those dream particles tremble the air,
clot and rise,
walk about the room? Semi-lucidness,
lightning’s ghostly tributaries,
counting one Mississippi, two…
I need to know: do you have trouble sleeping when the moon
is full and blankets the boulders or is it the sliver that pierces the dark,
makes you restless?
And does it ever hit you sideways, your hand having never been inside
my own in the customary grasp? Hello, so nice to finally meet you. And yet…
What is distance, what is separate, when two people can share a memory, cup rain
from the same ruptured cumulus,
find quartz and lost shoes in the same dry wash,
say monsoon and hear the peal, the sound and the light,
one following the other,
never more than seconds apart.