March 22, 2014

Bittersweet Blossoms: A Review of Sara Henning's A Sweeter Water by Sally Deskins

cover credit: Lavender Ink
A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
Lavender Ink (2013)

Reviewed by Sally Deskins

Sara Henning’s second poetry collection, A Sweeter Water, is a tough read. As the title suggests, there is a sweeter place out there, and this unsweetened story is about a woman struggling to find it. Much of the poetry collection involves nature with a keen sense of Earth and country. But it takes a few pages to get under the skin of this book and begin to understand what is going on, which is the relationship of the narrator and her father. Henning presents a child’s point of view in the first section and then quickly comes of age after a tragic incident. Readers experience the narrator’s world through her eyes as she literally looks up to her father.

The first piece presents perhaps the happiest moment of the book, “Birthday,” with brief imagery presenting philosophical queries, and intimate foreshadowing for the somber story ahead. Henning writes:
To be a self is to be an incompletion, a yearning for parts…

The day your father looks in your eyes and says daughter is your first birthday.

His eyes the minute they go out, the candles blown.
The poems that commence the collection are abstract, dark, and sometimes disturbing. For example, “How We Love” tells of a python eating a leopard cub, but somehow Henning brings it all back to love:
…Even the leopard carried the cub’s body to a field close to her den, chewed it tenderly to pieces, swallowed each down. Even I still look for your effigy everywhere, practice your body until it is raw susurration, burned not by my throat but my heart. Which of us stays at her guttural refrain for days, though our love was never so close to our hunger? What is love but a set of urges?
Themes about animals and the body further interweave as the narrator delves graphically deeper into existential dilemmas, such as in “Three Themes on Rescue.” As she tries to save a hen found lying on the side of the road, readers see her love of animals and tender spirit, her deep yearning for saving something from death, and the sadness of her past:
I held her still
when she brooded,
cloaca tight with the next
egg’s clench and spasm,
imagining my mother
on the bathroom floor,
blood from the miscarriage
like urine staining
the animal’s tail,
Father three weeks dead.
Direct emotion is displayed in “How She Loves Me,” a standout piece where the raw despair of experiencing a paternal suicide is realized through her relationship with her mother. Henning explains:
…so I’d learn to want her apology pressed onto
my heart like a spray of oleander, on it the words
sunder, daughter, bitter indictment, something to hold
at the end of my sorrow: sorry he left us without flowers.
Sorry he’s never coming back.
Readers further witness the narrator’s troubled adolescence as she seems to grow up in an instant. Her body continues to play a strong role as she grasps at the living. This is powerfully stated in “Lost Things.” Henning writes:
…all these failed translations that feed my mind and not my heart. 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.
She comes of age in “Adolescence,” a stellar rendition of the wretchedness of age thirteen, especially in her state, with poignant visualizations. She states:
I tried to read their futures
from the tealeaves of their broken hearts,
beer stolen from neighbor’s basement coolers,
cigarettes dangling between slim, shaking fingers,
where could they situate
the blank slate before a boy (which boy)
could bruise them, is it redemption
in the liberty of being left out past curfew,
longing for a future
that won’t martyr them silently
Moving and despairing realizations during intimate moments reveal her anguish of “the hinge between girlhood and womanhood exchanging masks. And through sleepovers and her first kiss, readers experience how much the narrator’s body is interwoven in girlhood and becoming a woman, and how heartbreak can impact relationships. But there is hope toward the end of the collection with “Glass Negative” and the last piece, “To Speak of Dahlias.” The narrator allows deep and sad reflection on her childhood, adolescence, her body, past relationships, and the present. She writes:

instead of howl—buried them
until frost became
dahlia blossom,
luminous material
growing from earth
that once burned.
“And I’m left with dahlias,
deluges, ladder to nowhere
but the sky.”
These metaphors of “howling” as perhaps crying, and the beautiful flowers growing from the earth that “once burned” suggests that through it all, reaching bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. So ends Henning’s truly raw and telling account of one woman’s life through parental struggles and her own as she deals with the regular struggles of adolescence, relationships and life’s meanings. Through intimate relationships with nature, animals, and the body, readers witness and recognize an important exploration and elaboration of extremely intense sides of life.  A Sweeter Water is a welcome, albeit complex, introduction to Henning’s work.

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