Sara Henning

Crown After Watching the Season Finale of Chicago Fire
          “You’re my miracle, Gabby. You’re my miracle. I love you.”
                    –Captain Matthew Casey, Chicago Fire

Because flames split the walls with their jagged chemical grace,
or because love is a body language, a saintly exiled verb,
he strips off his mask. He yields his Halligan bar.
On T.V., a wife watches her husband die in a fire, which means
he repeats her name. Listen, he’s calling for her.
What I mean is I’m watching a wife watch her husband die
in a fire: he’s CB’ing her through his two-way wireless.
She searches his voice as sparks tongue his boots.
She won’t hostage herself this way. She means it—
the map to his body’s city is etched in her skin.
I’m watching two voices clash through radio waves:
You’re my miracle, when he means every exit is choked.
A husband’s last rites as debris dirties the air.
She shushes him as another window explodes.

She shushes him as another window explodes.
Loving a man is loving a body with the threat
of ash all around it—the kerosene palpable,
the flint hitched to the last place you touch him.
But I’m at a safe distance: no real smoke to bait
my lungs, no ash to fleck my calico nightshirt.
The T.V. blurs and murmurs in the dim.
I deflect, so the vague flutters me open. My father
was a fireman before a fire raged in the house
of the holy. In 1982, lightning
struck the steeple of a Baptist church.
The roof warped and bowed, the ceiling awakened.
Holiness is a force. My mother likes to say God
was inside my father when he died.

God was inside my parents when they contracted
the fever of baby-making. Muscled in my mother,
I was a dark yes, a seed not a sin. You don’t have a daddy,
Jess said near the monkey bars, her pretend, fuchsia
horse bucking beneath her. That means you’re a bastard.
Bastard, a word meant for men who kindled my mother’s
wrath—that uncle of yours with his holier-than-thou
Jesus talk is a real bastard
. My mother’s revision—
I took your father to court to have you legitimized.
Legitimacy, a defense to beat the low-down dirtiest
of playground girls was heaven-sent—I’m legitimate,
but God beat you with the ugly stick.
Jess, a buck-toothed Kewpie
doll, swore then told on me. Later, she’d piss her pants.
God help your britches, I’d say. I’m still praying for your face.

I’m still praying for the T.V. wife, the windshield
of her marriage star-breaking in slow-motion. As the fire
slits the air, as the fate of her husband honeycombs
into limbo, I’m watching the way every man I’ll love
will die. The body’s undoings always chip before
they surge—urine inking its pink mold monogram
in the back of the toilet. Blood ribboning the sink water
after a glucose stick. The ex post facto ways
my father left us before leaving: his threats to haunt
my mother’s yard in his brother’s broke-down Winnebago.
Phone calls late into the night. The pointillist landscape
he threw down the stairs when she asked for money.
He read Ferlinghetti, christened himself an artist.
Sell it, he said. I’ve already hocked my guitar.

My mother hocked my father’s heart for a song,
but I’m not here to sell you a line about Orpheus,
a song so brutal it pretties a curse. The song,
like his heart, can’t unbury the dead. Nothing headless sugars
in the dark. Not the letter from a stranger who says
he’s my brother, not the chaos that follows, my fingers splitting
the tripwire of a young man’s cursive. Can you blame me?
I’m twenty when I dare to grip the word brother
in my mouth, test my mother with this last hallowed slur. Her reply
unthreads an empire: Mark is two years older than you.
I drop the phone. Her words silt the scrim of history:
a wife, then a boy grafted to my father. Reflexive,
my mother’s pregnancy dream while they spoon in bed:
I’m laughing, blonde, holding a red balloon.

I’m laughing, blonde, holding a red balloon,
while Mark, a toddler, watches smoke gun the air
as fire hoses radiate water. His mother speaks to men
in hushed tones. I won’t tell you he’s skimming his sneakers through grit
on the curb, or that he recalls a cricket thrumming its wings,
the hook of its violin solo lacing the dark.
Later I’ll read about a parasite named Ormia ochracea,
a fly that slicks through the glitz of chitin, the cricket’s
love cry only code for her to rush the optic lobes
of his brain, to tongue the sleek inner thorax, to lay
her young in the temple she makes of his dying body.
Think of it—stoned on heart blood, your eyes flitting open.
The world as you know it coming unhinged. There was never
a cricket. Just Mark, gazing as his world implodes.

I don’t want to gaze as his world implodes—the fictional
husband, I mean. We are back to my hand langouring
in a bowl of popcorn, my face wet with another
woman’s tears. After all, a disease is literally sweetening
my husband’s blood—mellitus, Greek, as in like honey.
His fate, literally to siphon, from diabainein,
to go through. What does it mean to die of sweetness?
His blood tastes like rust sucked from a boy’s clash
with barbed wire, that spring-feral crazy that makes
a body want to run through backyards without shoes.
It tastes like the underside of moth wings, like dragonflies
making love mid-air before the trip, pulse, and minor
whelm of a body come to harm. It is a story
that begins with his mother, as all stories begin.

To begin with a mother, as all stories begin:
Ten and she’s gliding her stick of Mitchum roll-on
under his arms, the funk of manhood sprung
like testimony from his pores this year
girls were not bird bones and salt but a thick
-heat dirge in his hips. To remember the pivot
of song, he baptizes himself in hot water.
He scrubs and scrubs. This is how the body
totalizes itself. Once one man lets go,
another becomes visible. As if to say,
son does not mean effigy. Son does not mean
tome of the father, nor does it mean to listen
or to sweeten. Son does not mean he who trains
the dog heart of loneliness to famine and moan.

To famine or to moan, to bay or to kindle, a boy
is a transom, not a rip in his mother’s pantyhose—
he did not pivot under nylon’s eclogue when he surged
from her, star slit child, another man of war. While his father
hauls load on the road, he’s a gone boy in training, a future MIA.
Think of his mother, the radio’s lilt, her signature gravy
that could soothe any afternoon down to the bone—the goop,
she called it. Shit on a shingle. Stick to your ribs
kind of grub a man should eat with his sons. Think
of the motel breezeway, not the boy, his mother casing
his father’s parked truck. It happens fast—menthol
through a flung-open metal door. His father in sheets,
then a woman’s bare feet on Pergo. A flash before
his memory crashes: snow glittering everything that moved.

His memory crashing—snow glittering everything that moved.
The gun-metal white of a mother’s rage. Pillow marks
damning her face all winter. Rosacea islands.
Trash bags swathing his father’s best things: stereo
smashed by a baseball bat. Scissored-up
Rustler jeans. In the way of the jilted, a boy
becomes man of a house divided. Which is to say
a boy hardens, splits to the seams. His mother watching
his body surface from a conspiracy of dreams—
sweet chrysalis boy, boy cut down to the soul.
When his gallbladder studs up like a pearl snap Stetson shirt,
everyone’s trusts it’s his heart, not a new
circadian rhythm, not a new blood moan. He jokes:
I’m a sweet kid. Now I’ve got the blood to prove it.

A sweet kid, with the blood to prove it— March is for
basketball playoffs, not the amber sting of iodine,
or a scalpel’s cool nick against skin. No one should move
against the shot clock of his life like this—man
exploding the rim, mad backspin baller, a beast
in the paint. When did his body become a pick-up game
of recklessness, buzzer radiating at the end
of the quarter? When did his body pulls away in the run?
Sweet in the back of your throat when you pitch, husband:
laparoscopic wound pulling at the stitch: yeast latticing
your shins as drop step and dunk, husband:
velvety dark secreting the creases of your knees:
your blood churning a three-pointer curse on the spin,
husband: do you nail a wicked shot or do you miss?

Do you nail a wicked shot or do you miss,
husband, as if to say our veiled metaphors
for self-destruction hold the formula
for how we grieve? When we say son, do we mean
the father in our blood always leaving?
When mothers hate themselves through their children,
could we say this motherpain is transactional,
a bastard honeysuckle vine taking root everywhere
it whorls its silky exterior, soothes with its grip?
Is this the way women become mothers, our flower
throat fever turning us holy, our glossy pistil hunger
for another woman’s son making us say, Mea culpa,
mea culpa, mea maxima culpa? Is it sweet, our shame
unfurling, or just another sweetness that kills?

Our shame unfurling, another sweetness that kills—
Imagine a woman gazing into the brassy flames
of a warehouse fire, her husband trapped inside.
Imagine a woman not exploding with the next bunker
of crude oil, but losing herself in the most
measured way, her yield to grief so modest it stuns:
her eyes glitter. Her cheeks glisten with salt.
Imagine a woman who does not keen or sink
to her knees to bargain or beg, but who holds
her husband’s voice like it is his body. Without breaking
the fourth wall, I am leaping into the hothouse
of another woman’s pain. I’m watching a wife watch
her husband die in a fire, which is to say—
she’s his miracle. She’s losing everything she loves.

What is a woman, when miracle doesn’t mean
the roof is coming down? When miracle isn’t just another
name for the house of the holy? I want to see a woman,
not a fuchsia horse hurtling past the scrim of memory,
not an animal threshed by the heels of a brutal girl.
I’m here for a miracle, not a cricket lacing the dark
with its violin solo, not a boy watching smoke
swallow the sky. If miracle only means sweet
in the back of the throat. If woman only means
that glossy pistil hunger. I’m watching a woman—
understand me—not another mea culpa, not another
temple unpetaling. I’m watching a woman stoned
on heart blood refuse to crystal. I’m watching her,
vine of feral honeysuckle, un-ribbon then open.


Sara Henning is the author of two volumes of poetry, most recently View from True North, which won the 2017 Crab Orchard Poetry Open Prize and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in fall 2018. Her other collections include A Sweeter Water (2013), as well as two chapbooks, Garden Effigies (dancing girl press 2015) and To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press 2012). In 2015, she won the Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, judged by Alberto Ríos. She has published poems in several journals and anthologies, most notably Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Passages North, RHINO, Meridian, and the Cincinnati Review. She also has a record of publication in fiction and nonfiction, with flash fiction and lyrical essays published in journals such as Connotation Press, where she appeared as featured author for the September 2016 issue, and 4 PM Count, a journal associated with the Arts Endowment’s interagency initiative with Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons in Yankton, South Dakota. Sara lives in Nacogdoches, TX, where she teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University and serves as poetry editor for Stephen F. Austin State University Press.