A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
(Lavender Ink, 2013)
reviewed by Kate Savage
A sweet title introduces poetry that is also all-at-once deliciously sour, bitter, salty. Sara Henning’s debut collection speaks out of hard-bit scars, a secular stigmata of suicidal fathers, brutal lovers, animals rescued or left for dead, a cruel mother, and the motherly ‘bad girl’ next door. There are dahlias and peonies in these pages, but they grow on spit and sulfur. Her words heft the weight of those trash bags from her gut-wrenching piece “Dead Reckoning”:
so full of his things and her sorrow
they could have held dead bodies.
This is a confessional text, heartfelt and autobiographical—and yet it skips away from the traps of naivety and self-indulgence. Henning explains in her opening poem:
My father taught me how an artist disappears behind the walls of his work,
that the dismantling of composure is cutting cobalt from a rattle, soft ochre
from a tabby’s fur, a father from removal’s intense red.
Henning knows how to cut herself out of the whole cloth of her craft. She disappears behind the walls of her work but never manages to hide.
The resulting pieces reveal a peculiar kind of snipping and stitching, a demon handicraft of domesticity. In “Self-Portrait as Stitching a Summer Body, Philomela,” she begins: “The striking thread carries so many portals, occlusions.” Thread, which would bind us in homey togetherness, operates through striking, tearing, cutting—making an opening and a break. We are brought together by all the ways we are separated from each other. Any moment of apparent nostalgia for togetherness and home is always revealed as more “occlusions.”
It’s worth noting the allusion to Philomela in the title. In Greek mythology, Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, who then cut her tongue out to silence her. Mute, she weaves a tapestry to tell her sister the story, stitching to reveal a wound. When the sister reads what happened in the tapestry, she kills her son and feeds him to her husband in an act of revenge. Finally, the sisters are turned into birds (Philomela to a nightingale) to escape the cycle of vengeance. Henning’s quiet sign-post to this brutal story tells us something of the weight of weaving and cutting in this volume—and also the weight of “family,” with both its unspeakable violence and its fierce solidarity.
Another stitching poem explores the inevitability of brokenness. “Twine and Needle” is an attempt to compose a face—specifically the face of childhood:
Shortly after my birth, my face shattered to pieces.
When surgeons attempted to construct a new one, each attempt fell to the
floor like exhausted porcelain.
The shattering that splits us off from others is shown in this poem to creep internally as well. Our only face is a failure to construct one; our identity grows out of the dissolution of a self. As with Philomela, Henning’s poetic voice seems to grow out of the scar of a tongue’s removal.
Her more fundamental similarity with Philomela, however, is her need to communicate an actual narrative. These poems aren’t primarily ‘about’ ideas or moods: Henning is a story-teller. The events that happen in these lines are described with clarity, as in this scene from “Requiem with Dog, Dead Sparrow, and Wisteria”:
I too wouldn’t turn
against the piston syllable of love holding
me down. Once, I slept with my leg wrapped
in a towel, the other wrapped around
a lover who cut me, blood like snuff mouthed
loosely, spit in the rust of a can.
In the morning, he threw the towel’s
wet elegy of fever in the trash.
The solidity of events in her poetry allows a nuance—and even a muddling—of its attendant emotional responses. Like the bees in “How She Loved Me,” Henning is constantly dovetailing “to where soft and terrible is the same pithy center.” Her second piece, “Home,” seems to offer in its first line an uncomplicated, nostalgic metaphor for returning homeward:
to a river that heads toward the sea [. . .]
Which she then troubles with a clarification: “Fresh to salt.” Going home isn’t a return to freshness; it’s salty, with the sting in a wound. “I let hole replace wholesome,” she writes in “Zuihitsu Beginning and Ending with Wildflowers.” If you want to find something wholesome in the title A Sweeter Water, you may: or you may read it as a longing to fight one’s way upstream and get the hell away from home.
As with the nightingale’s singing, Henning is capable of loveliness in these lines. But when the speaker in “Philomela” describes herself knitting and stitching, the reader can’t quite decipher if she’s cross-stitching Home Sweet Home for the mantlepiece or cutting herself. Henning looks deep into the emptiness of home’s cliches, and fishes out the unsettling.
Henning’s poetic creation is always a double-movement; here nothing can escape either its own shadow or its own luminescence. She writes in “First Striptease”:
[. . .] sometimes we kiss deeply
just to turn away, so one day we won’t feel the holes
in our bodies so desperately, so one day they
can’t help but startle us.
She strikes a distance from her poetic subjects, but finds this space only serves to magnify. It’s as though Henning is capable of binding together lack, in one solid mass, and simultaneously breaking apart all possessions with a claustrophobic gasp. This paradox is the seat of her versatility. Compare the dense paragraph-poem “Lost Things” with the structural dissolution of “When You Ask if I Ever Really Loved You.”
From “Lost Things”:
I begin my list: tomcat with feet flexed in a seizure of pleasure, belly chasing
sun; hen rescued from a truck jumping against the heft of her body for a
crust of bread; brother plucking sorrow from my lap like peonies. No one
wants stories about fits of nostalgia, mothers, birds that call with the sun in
their mouths. No one gives a shit about your brother even if he’s blitzing
through the binding of the same lost father. [ . . . ] The tom was cold when I
touched my face to his fur; my brother is marrying a woman I have never
spoken to, and yet this urge is here to name things which I am not: hen’s
wing ripped off by a dog, mother burning my childhood on a pyre, childhood
expunged from my body like a struggling sack of sugar.
From "When You Ask":
When you love
you’ll plant in her
the same brutal
seed that won’t stop
pulsing, and I’ll
forgive her [. . . ]
Henning rides the ridge between escape-from and longing-after, marrying an overflowing brain with an animal whimper. All of this makes her a new artist of that very old subject: Love. What is A Sweeter Water but a particularly fresh, nuanced, and troubled love song? The honesty, novelty, and grace which Henning brings to this task makes her a poet who deserves to be read and reread.