A Sweeter Water

By Sara Henning


Lavender Ink Press
September 2013

Reviewed by Lauren Gordon


Sara Henning's A Sweeter Water is a ciphering of grieving. The book's opening poem is an introduction to loss and it foreshadows the suicide of the speaker's father. But like the many dahlias that pervade these poems, loss is a multi-faceted, motivating current. A Sweeter Water ruminates on identity and healing through distance, and Henning's mix of formal, informal, and prose poems creates a remarkable map of one woman's experiences.

Pound called the sestina "a form like a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding on itself," and although Henning's poem, "God Knows the Difference between the Living and the Dead," is not a sestina, it has the same effect in its envoy-like repetition:

Everyone saw this as a sign
of his soul flying
toward the cracked bowl 

of the sky. Everyone saw
the sky as a bowl cracked
by his soul.

Henning artfully presents the father's suicide in this poem without the expected pathos or controversy. The rhythm and pattern are unexpected. The combination of succinct, end-stopped lines with enjambed lines creates a physical column on the page so the reader is never far-removed from thinking about the body. This is where the body's ability to heal begins to become thematic.

The book's sections are well arranged, moving from a chronological ordering of the speaker's age, marked with the suicide of the father. The poems move the speaker in and out of danger as she ages and the pervasive feeling of jeopardy and exposure are undercurrents. But Henning's writing feels fresh in the way that it allows the reader to explore the bodily qualities of pervasive grieving. In "How We Love" she writes about a mother leopard whose cub has been eaten by a python: "When she found the den empty, python slow with new architecture, she tore it until it surrendered the body black with digestive fluid, whole as she'd left him, barely dead." Henning isn't afraid to compare loss to loss, to give a name to grief.

The last poem in the first section is the speaker's reconciliation with mortality, "The Last Dahlia." The dahlia makes several appearances throughout the book and seems to operate as a metaphor for a few different ideas; it's pervasive, colorful, edible, and has an interesting and long history. Henning's dahlias are sturdy and fragrant, yet still ephemeral. She writes, "I know only that this presence is voluntary" in "Nothing is Heavy to Those Who Have Wings," and it seems to pin down the struggle of mindfulness. Even when the distance between the father's suicide and the present grows, there is a continual checking-in that happens in the next sections.

The reflective quality of the poetry in the second section seems to be more firmly grounded in the natural world. The loss of childhood isn't seen through the eyes of childhood. The prose poem "Lost Things" is direct in its address of naming the grief through mourning: "One day my hole saw your hole and we fell through each other by naming them: one day our holes called each other doubtlessly sayable things. My hole: finch; your hole: gold woven out of dirt that the finch puts its beak to, as boundaries do when we are closed by a more comfortable context." It's a closed-in reading, as if the prophecy of the father is continuously beating its wings (from "Birthday": "My father taught me how an artist disappears behind the walls of his work"). This poem is powerful because of its anger and its syntactical thrust. The grammar is a combination of brief sentences with punctuation-heavy sentences and they move from the surreal and imagistic to the concrete. "No one gives a shit about your brother even if he's blitzing through the binding of the same lost father," Henning writes. Disenfranchised grief reaches its pinnacle.

The speaker's sense of identity also reaches its pinnacle in the second section. "Zuhitsu Beginning and Ending with Wildflowers" charts a sexually charged "blooming" and again, presents a reconciliation of the distance between memories and the present as she muses different self-portraits at various ages. The series poem "Glass Negative" is an exploration of a relationship with a man who has also experienced loss and the body of grief that continues to haunt the speaker:

I don't tell him I compare
his mother's choice to a cigarette
pressed into silk, my father's
suicide: referent always empty
of contingency; holes in our childhood
that never stopped burning.

The narrative moves the poems in the second section, and the last section ends with a long poem, "To Speak of Dahlias." This book is not a primer in grief, yet certainly it thematically speaks to a universal audience. The space of the journey and finding identity within the parameters of loss is what makes the poetry in A Sweeter Water a body unto itself.