Nicole Tong

Review of A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2013. 80 pp. $15.00. paper

Sara Henning's haunting debut collection of poems, A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), explores the ways in which stories are constructed. Aptly, it begins in a mode of reflection; the part one starts begins with "Birthday," and a memory, which "bends under weight". The speaker professes: "a body makes a story for the unmentionables of the past" and later, "To be a self is to be an incompletion, a yearning for parts." The poems move through the past by way of the fragmentary. A roof is "a mosaic of insulation," the speaker's face "shattered into pieces" following an accident, the sky "a cracked bowl." Reading Henning's lyrics, the reader is called to participate in a voyeurism that is both uncomfortable and uncanny. That strangeness keeps me reading although what is there is heartbreaking and hopeful.

The poems in the first section are fearlessly unapologetic and in their systematic observation of the past. Henning's lyrics are matter-of-fact and direct. One title claims "All I Know" and continues:

There is always a body not mine
growing bones where I am.

The body is not snow trespassing
the length of my thigh

The poems grapple with the always-already and the failures of memory in the face of reason by balancing abstractions with specificity: "the weekend after, the same clothes— / blue jeans, flannel shirt". This makes sense in a collection lyrics investigating loss. In "God Knows the Difference between the Living and the Dead", a poem about a father's suicide, the agent changes from one stanza to the next:

The afternoon he took
his life his soul stripped
its clothes off in the street.

The street stripped its soul
from the afternoon
he took himself from.

And later, "Aperture, a Father," a two-part exploration of the same subject but this time, the speaker is present:

His flesh hung

lucid, saturated
the air, his legs

lithe over hardwood.
I was two,

and my failing body
was some August

lost in bed sheets.

By the second section, the speaker herself is foregrounded rather than provided in relation to the familial narratives; what results are poems that reveal her own agency: "That summer, I drove / away like she never taught me / to pray." Questions about the father remain: "Would it have mattered that they touched the remains of his body tenderly? / The men entering and exiting the church […]"However, discovery is the section's mode particularly in poems like "First Striptease," "Adolescence," and "Zuihitsu Beginning and Ending with Wildflowers," the latter of which offers a series of self-portraits that also interrogate homophones and like-sounding words: "Self Portrait as Maid Under Siege, Age 31: / If I was a wildflower, I'd take null over pull, so many rose-colored / ambushes.

"The Art of Exes" presents a look at the speaker from two different ages, twenty-three and nineteen, and this position: "intimacy is its own / heredity". Likewise, in "Nothing is Heavy to Those Who Have Wings," "The smoke / was an intimate language," and later, "I don't know his name, which is enough intimacy. The speaker professes is "Lost Things": "No one wants stories about fits of nostalgia"; she offers, instead, intimate details of the corporeal: "childhood expunged from my body like a struggling sack of sugar." The poems interrogate domestic violence and the prices women pay for what they "relish". The section continues questions of heredity and ownership, investigating the speaker's own corporeality and identity. "How to Make Babies," for example ends this way:

...My arms, pale hocks
of heave, my body, a sieve
to its endlessness. I ground
my childhood against the crack
and gave of potato chips,
their salt thrill and oil, ate
meat with my hands, fork
a useless superlative against
its sweetly feral smell. Using
my fingers to dig into cake plates,
and cereal bowls, I would
throat the refuse with a relish
almost sexual. My aunt finally
told my mother—though the
slice of flesh between my legs
would not be palatable for years—
do you want that girl raped?
Look at her. You made her
body. Now own it. Tell her.

The third section is a single lyric poem, "To Speak of Dahlias," a poem composed and presented for a collaboration with artist Laura Smith and the title of Henning's first chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2012). The poem uses repetition and anaphora to investigate what the speaker's "left with." It begins:

And at the end
there were dahlias
covered over with boards,
one window choked
with light.

This stanza demonstrates the tension of the collection; the hope the light provides and the violence with which the window is "choked." I trust the tenderness of paradoxes like this one and later:

This autumn, I tested
each river I passed
with things made
more beautiful by dirt—

After an interlude with the speaker's mother and her father, the speaker's father reappears:

My father climbs
the heaven-studded boundary
of his skin and my body
like stairs of my childhood,
rye-grass staining
the knees of jeans, juniper gardens
camouflaging rocks.

After this reappearance, the speaker repeats the imperative, "Leave me" as if insisting on her own freedom. The collection ends with the speaker calling herself "a rootless thing" looking at "dahlias, / deluges, ladder to nowhere / but the sky." If this speaker can look onward and upward, there's hope for the rest of us.

Henning has filtered the traumatic and hopeful, just as promised, and has made A Sweeter Water, an elixir to a steadfast reader. There are times I want to look away, to skip over, or to skim; the prose poem, "How We Love," for example is a hard read: "Last summer in Illinois, a woman was found under a pile of trash, her animals eating what was left of her. Neighbors said when her husband died, she stopped letting go of what passed through her hands." Henning uses reason to explore something awful until it becomes awesome. This poet didn't skimp; she stares the down the aperture of what she knows and sings.

You can purchase A Sweeter Water here.

Nicole Tong is the recipient of a Dorothy Rosenberg Prize and fellowships from George Mason University and the Vermont Studio Center. Her writing has been published in American Book Review, Cortland Review, Yalobusha Review, and others. Finishing Line Press will publish her chapbook MY MINE in 2015. She lives and teaches college-level English in Northern Virginia. Read more of her work at

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