The Book of Questions
Are you there?
Ellipse of tide
forest where I wandered alone
every afternoon—Mother, a word—
lady slipper, birchbark unraveling—
were you with me?
I looked in monasteries on greyhound buses
in too many pond surfaces
the jellied eggs rising from the wrack.
The sound of the water was round.
Mother: a softness in the mouth,
I wanted you to be an everywhere sky
the sun unglossing and mothwings
opening a trail of pale papers.
To be lit by something not made of light.
What question was this hunger that made me
dig into the earth-rich
loam of you?
If I had one purpose it was to be fixed
to the source gathering
feather by bone, reap and rail—
how to know my own wayward
shape and how to let all
the little parts of me
course in to the whole?
What have you abandoned?
Wedding albums, new appliances, the birthday parties
of other people’s children,
roommates, rings in a silk-lined box,
apples that tired my jaw half-way through,
a belief in just one life
(then a belief in many), love of country, sparklers
and kazoos, my own biology,
all those eggs, sloughed cells, my hair
and eyelashes gathered up by the doves
who abandon their chicks if they’ve made too many.
Think of what a shadow needs
whenever you question absence as necessity,
how light in its fleeing creates the cool
swells of dark we rest in. Breath must leave
the lungs to return, to be missed,
to then recede tide-like and make of us
a fine, abandoned hovel.
Or think of any brave woman with a suitcase,
black trash bag, grocery sack ripping
at the handles, get-a-way car idling,
elderly neighbors leering from their lawns, clucking,
On a Tuesday? How could she? That I left
him in daylight, unmasked, casual
as a lunch-break errand, my body a palette
of colors appearing as white light,
white light back and forth
across the green lawn, white light leaving, gone,
two grey cats I used to love
watching from the window.
But most of all, think of what disappeared
in my rearview like a touch-worn stone—
eucalyptus encircling a silent bay I once
thought round enough
to hold the shapes of my sorrow.
Friend, I could hear the whole neighborhood
gasp as if I were leaving a child,
as if they didn’t think I was a child
worth keeping alive, that I wasn’t hungry
and lonely and sleeping every night
in a house on fire, that I wouldn’t
kick down my own door to save myself,
to take back the light I’d left behind.
Who are you when you’re alone?
It is risky to speak, no? A woman
tells the truth and the world
cracks open. Or a woman starts
to tell, tests the faultline, scanning
for micro-shocks then spackles them
tidily back together. Let this poem be
a little proof that I left something
unmended. The truth is while I am
daughter, sister, mother, wife,
teacher, friend, room parent, I am
simultaneously living alone in a cedar forest.
It is night and I am walking across
the tundra. I have set up shop in a vacant
post office in a town called Beyond.
And when I say that I live there,
parts of my mother and grandmothers,
the whole cursive lineage has also lived
in their own clearings. Maybe it was
disguised in the taskiness of thrift shopping
or hand cranking egg noodles or playing
the organ at budget funerals where nobody
came, but those quiet busy hours followed
a cycle of disintegration and integration.
I can’t tell what goes on here and I don’t want to
but let it not be a threat
that we court the solitudes
as much as the other loves. If others want
to say it is like prayer, something holy,
to allow a space, then let them say it.
But it is not holy. Some other blue or
shadow or tide the heart can hardly grasp,
some other wilderness that only stokes its light
for one. Thickety outpost in the marshgrass.
Waking to fields of snow in the desert. You
who have carried yourselves across the waters.
When do you start over?
Long ago, on a sea-cliff, I planned a recursive life,
built a lean-to of white driftwood like a bone cage,
like a house for breath and heartbeat.
It’s true I’m scaling windward, slipping into the cools of these crescent dunes
then up again at first light, drinking coffee, wearing my citizen suit,
braving vertigo, this abalone-sky-meets-ground.
The lean-to always needs repair. This slows me down. I never get much farther.
Heathen me, I left it doorless, never having known something holy.
I weave a mat for the little god to sit, strike flint across my teeth,
hang a lantern in the crux.
Of mimicry and birthdays, the wind says hysteria. I cannot argue against it.
January’s moon is called “wolf,” after all,
and happens to be super, rusty red as old blood
the night the landlord calls to say
she’s selling the house in April. Boots shuffling silt where the flood
cut through, tracks erased—but I’ve been here before.
From the yard that was never mine, see my 35
deliberate burro greyed to the skyline.
Hear the gentle bray, a kind of warning,
like the soft knock my mother always gave at my bedroom door.
I didn’t know what she was telling me then, as kind
as I’d ever hear it said: One day you will not live here.
What I know now and forget in the lull
of windbreaks, what I come to know
each time my husband and I wrap newspaper
around hand-me-down plates and vases, lug paperbacks to the trunk of our car:
the moon is a god passing through the shadow of a home
that neither loves us nor does not. There are only ever birds, not mean
or kind or ominous. The owl in the crux of Yucca
is pure coincidence, cooing like the dove it eats.
The knock had been a gesture, the door a civility, every space lent.
Though one day, at seventeen, home on a Friday night,
I let an open bottle of Elmer’s Glue fall over, watched as it ran, sealing
bed to carpet.
The wind says wisteria, and I unwrap two glasses I’d already packed away,
pour drinks, call my love by his borrowed name.
Our birthdays just five days apart.
We dance around a fire, drinking, wearing the masks of expired gods,
embers drifting, we raise our voices
to the choir and are chilled.
Have you ever missed something you never had?
When I first heard the red-tailed hawks in the palms,
I mistook them for seagulls, their falling screech,
thinking of the forked path where I might have ended
up along the New England shore instead of
the California desert. I listened, not knowing hawk,
and spooned the ache in—
salt grove, bleached dock, erosion—
In lack we fill the space with desire—
is it not a completion, a coming-toward?
I think I might tune my life by it
standing on the brink of zero
with hands open, mouth
hungry, when everything rises to the surface
just a little, breathes, and slips away.
Years later when I found out they were hawks
pillaging the nests of other birds, I longed
for the huddle of eggs, the flapping-apart mother.
Canopy. Loss. The call a sharp grief of heat,
clattering bowl, a sated belly. I didn’t want to know
what sound my body was yet.
I have lived in eight different homes and in four of them
I could hear a train in the distance and the trains
sounded like everything I never had. I loved
the daily toll of that feeling, passenger, freight,
briefly calling out this life that one,
so I could hear its presence howling once
and the answer was always let it leave.
Let the joy be what runs off the distance without me.
And every song I ever loved I loved because
it made me love
people I’ll never know, then swiftly sheen away
before the last refrain, songs that made
my alternative lives nearly happen,
and the missing was also a kind of motion.
Train-music, afterglow, fool me once,
fool me twice with predictable spells.
But those hawks weren’t pillaging nests. That was the story
I decided made sense. I had finally had the baby.
And the lens was still mother loss mother loss on repeat.
Longing is a careless completion.
Too much easy thinking in the sway of beauty, grief.
And yes, I’ve grown sloppy here, mid-age, tired,
too ready to be lifted from the trough.
The hawks most often known for flight screech,
defending territory, protecting, mating—
they scream in the air. My son pointed
Why are all those seagulls flying toward the desert?
And I’m not telling the whole truth when I say I love
the longing. A kind of nostalgia or memory-weave
or love-lesson in brevity, yes, but that’s when I can
afford the charm of loss. When I could not have
the baby, the loss was an everywhere
kind of pain. I did not love it and could not ease.
It did not run away on a train or in a sad song.
It was so watchful. Never left me days, and nights
it abided all the more. What kept me going
was missing the child whose negative shape
had become so tangible.
Do we call this pre-elegy? Post-summoning?
I was already in dialogue.
As you are. Set in motion.
Even though it was a staging that promised
no entrance. Then when the baby did come,
I was so abraded to the ache, I had to learn to live
without it. From a distance stop seeing it
everywhere, emptying myself of the absence.
And also the tenderness of sustaining sadness,
on the brink of tears at every connection:
limp-legged dog, battered bee, grocery bagger, the hand reaching
the coffee to me through the sliding window. My heart
leapt for the casual effort of showing up and keeping on.
And you know a version of this story now too,
one that is your own. We can’t share it.
What moon you conjure with the space of want is
your moon. I showed you the silkworm moths
the last time you were here and we considered
their thick swaths, how they lurched backward
circles into the air to begin the weave.
What I wanted to say is that missing the child
casts out an intention whose power is greater
than you need to believe. If you can’t trust
in that, I will trust it for you.
L. I. Henley is the author of Whole Night Through (What Books), Perugia Press Prizewinner Starshine Road, These Friends These Rooms, and two chapbooks. She lives in Joshua Tree, California, and teaches at Crafton Community College.
Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of Little Spells (New Issues Press), How to Live on Bread and Music, which received the James Laughlin Award, the Perugia Press Prize and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize, and Salt Memory. She lives in Redlands, California, and teaches at the University of Redlands.