Book Review

Bess N Mobley on
poems by Sara Henning
Southern Illinois University Press, 2024
Burn, Sara Henning’s newest collection of poetry, is a rich work of journeys—journeys through seasons, through the phases of life, journeys from place to place and age to age. Henning begins in spring, with “Good Kissing:”

Mosquitos circling nests of eggs,
dragonflies feasting from dusk-blurred water.
Why did no one teach me that behind
every miracle is a god taking everything
it wants?

The poem is like a how-to on a certain part of growing up: “Good kissing, my aunt said, is what a man / and a woman do to make a baby.”

There is an appropriate awkwardness to the work. The reader can sense that something isn’t quite right, and it feels like adolescence all over again. From aunt to mother, the poem, “Ghost Story,” is another treatise on growing up. 

Savannah, my mother would say, 
so beautiful General Sherman could not watch
it burn. Perhaps this is why we stayed 

in this city of rain-torched oaks

“Ghost Story” is one of the more difficult poems in the collection. The entire collection might warrant a trigger warning, but the work helps the reader heal from these growing pains in a beautiful way. Henning’s words simultaneously slice and bandage. “Ghost Story” ends with the image of:

Saturday blooming before them like

a heaven that could seize them up—
raped girl, ghost story. Even Sherman
would not burn it down.

The poem uncovers those hard truths that there is a little ugly in all of our histories. We can’t get away from the ugly, but we can overcome it. “Even Sherman/ would not burn it down” repeats and reminds that some beauty just cannot be destroyed. 

Some of the themes of the collection include family, home, growth, grief/healing, nature, and time. The poem titled, “Blue,” is like a blast back to the 1990s: “I start with Manic Panic, my boyfriend’s head in the kitchen sink.“ “Blue” also reintroduces the idea of rape. The repetition throughout the work is forceful and cannot be ignored or missed. It seems like the majority of women and girls know the pain of rape either firsthand or through a loved one as when the poet writes: “When Elijah’s stepbrother raped my friend, I blame myself,” and she repeats “He raped my friend. I blame myself.” 

“Cornfield Elegy” is incredibly distinctive, both in form and in content: 

The verb for it is    glossing his Chrysler down right lacquered up
windows at half-mast like cigarettes tight-rolled into a T-shirt sleeve
the whole rhetorics of it rust   then katydids flitting their wings
rhapsodic.    One of those nights    where even the moon    threw a glare

The unique spacing gives the reader less process time from idea to idea. It’s literally like weaving through cornfields to look at the poem on the page. The poem is a burst of energy—a paragraph blurted out in one long breath. Henning plays with grammar here in phrases like “the verb for it is shot up” and “a story that ends with      ”.

Henning’s imagery is powerful and her turns of phrase unique. She places us in different time periods with ease as in “Ars Poetica After An Abnormal Mammogram:” “Even cut, a woman saves / what she can. Chicago, 1935. In her kitchen, / biscuits bloomed from rationed lard.” The time reference transports the reader to a place we know well but have never been. She opens up the wormhole and presents us with ideas that encourage and require deep thought. She ends this poem with a bomb and my favorite line of the whole book: “I cut with words. I’ll feed a city.”

The work in Burn is raw and searing. The themes are relatable to most, but there is an overtone of overcoming darkness that is especially thrilling in these poems.

Burn is made up of three sections, and the second section is compiled of a sonnet sequence titled “A Brief History of Fire.” The opening sonnet presents a jarring picture as the narrator begins with watching a TV show: “I’m watching a wife watch her husband die.” It goes on: “I’m watching two voices clash through radio waves.” 

This initial poem sets up the next twelve sonnets which all tie back in with the poems in the previous section about mothers, fathers, grief, and family. The second sonnet continues the stark mental photographs with lines like:

Loving a man is like loving a body with the threat
of ash all around it—you’re his kerosene.
His flash point glimmers when you touch his skin. 
But I’m at a safe distance: no smoke in my kitchen. 

This poem compares the couple on tv to the narrator’s own mother and father. Repetition is another major technique of this work, and one way the author uses repetition is to repeat the same ideas in brand new ways. Every poem burns the page, like a cattle brand puncturing images onto the reader’s mind. It is hard to forget the impressions made by Henning’s words. 

Another beautiful picture appears in the sixth sonnet: “I’m laughing, blonde, holding a red balloon.” Such a simple sentence but there are so many packed snapshots that the reader can see clearly the pain of growing up and the work necessary to truly heal. The next sonnet notes: “His blood is his story of yearning / stripped to the bone—a mother, then a father,” which made me think of having to accept that we come from our parents, but we are not our parents. I think this is something every human has to come to terms with. Some of us take longer than others. 

The work in Burn is raw and searing. The themes are relatable to most, but there is an overtone of overcoming darkness that is especially thrilling in these poems. I felt the warmth of the fire light up inside of me through Henning’s words. She does, indeed, “cut,” and her words will “feed a city”—or maybe the whole world. 

Bess N Mobley is a third-year PhD English student at Claremont Graduate University. She has published poems in The Bayou Review, em-dash, and Amazing Poetry. She has also published original artwork in em-dash and Tidings Collective and was asked to draw a book cover for Punk Hostage Press. She’s published numerous poetry reviews in journals and blogs all over the country. She has an MA from Purdue University, and her academic work focuses on female and queer fiction writers who place themselves into their own story worlds. Bess enjoys anime, manga, painting, hiking, biking, watching movies at the theater, and random adventuring. 

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


Home     Archives     Fiction     Poetry     Creative  Nonfiction     Interview     
Featured Artist   Reviews     Multimedia    Masthead     Submit