Three Poems by Sara Henning

Irises (1889)

To love is to tell the story of the world. 

—Nomi Stone

Did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent, and who rendered them so well, how, then did he still manage to be so unhappy?


The iris is never the story of one man, but a whole field of them? To love is to tell the story of the world.
Electric indigo veining sepals, gold like blackbody radiation vibrating the cusp of every stigmatic lip.
Pollen searing the velvet anther until the spathe blades a secondary bud, larynx of the flower spiraling at
the crest. But it is the white one always calling, isn’t it? Purity flaring like the bandage doctors jacketed
around your ear after you razored helix from temporal muscle, cut you concha loose. Vincent, turning
inward is what artists do. When you closed your eyes in Arles, Christmas 1888, razor in hand, were you
a boy again wandering heath fields in Zundert, absinthe like the swamps you lingered near, brilliant with
algae? Scientists call it eutrophication—when blooms bruise through any story of water. And after, it is
said that you wrapped your secret sliver of self, slipped it into a prostitute’s hand. I hold these myths,
Vincent, instead of you. The iris is never the story of one man, but as you stalked the grounds your first
May in Saint Paul, you were still sheathed in gauze. Irises silking your ankles would be dead by June. Did
you see heads of flowers drowsy as lounging women, spathe blading their elegant throats? Or did you see
the etymology of your blood, beasts in an asylum garden, beauty only another gift of darkness?   


The Mulberry Tree (1889)

I’ll tell you that we’re having some superb autumn days, and that I’m taking advantage of them.

—Van Gogh

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.


Shot up with light, 

        Vincent, even the word 

bleeds beauty—mulberry

September’s orgy 

        of color, leaves bulleting

the sky like a horde 

of fire opals.

        Are you man 

enough to take it 

in your mouth, 

        Vincent, mulberry, 

living wound of a word, 

swallow its human sound?

        It moves through you    

as a vision, luscious    

syllables you translate

with your body: trunk  

an etched muscle

piercing shale, your leaves

        breathless, sharp

-toothed, crazed  

helixes accelerating 

        past death, canvas, 

or pleasure’s edge.

Vincent, only a God

        can paint with fire,

so be God, 

any god. Show me 

        your naked flame, a shape

indivisible from longing.


Show me what it means  

        to burn, rage, then be 

born again.


Olive Trees with Les Alpilles (1889)

Initially Van Gogh’s health improved at Saint-Paul, but two months after his arrival, in mid-July 1889, he succumbed to a sudden attack . . . Dr. Peyron reported to Theo that Vincent had tried ‘to poison himself with his brush and paints.’ Van Gogh vomited, but his throat then become very badly swollen. For four days he was in agony and unable to eat, and even a month later he still fond it painful to swallow.
          —Martin Bailey

Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them.
       —Vincent van Gogh

Near Trabuc’s farmhouse, off the grounds 
      of Saint-Paul asylum, did you call them 
            olives or little wounds—pits slick in the gut, 

            lush drupes taunting the air? You watch 
      starlings clutch up their darkness. 
Imagine it, Vincent, throating pleasure 

straight from the tree. Heat smites you
      down like God or a woman: murmuration 
            of brusque birds haunting you.

            Would you call any of it prayer? 
      June beetles prostrate in ribbons of grass, 
thoraxes rich as chrome tourmaline. 

Cicadas ricochet with red jade eyes. 
      Grass grafts its soul to Mount Gaussier, 
            gold-etched clouds churn sleek 

            ouroboros. Even wind is sermon, 
      fantasy lashing the rash, silvering leaves. 
Feverish, you paint this Gethsemane. 

Come July, you’ll take every agony 
      of color in your mouth, raid your stash 
            of acrylics, your esophagus churning 

            red lake, yellow ochre. You’ll exhale 
      starlings, olives, beetles like flames 
in the grass. Color will glitz 

your hyoid bone. Your pharynx 
      blooms. Throat chawed by chemical burn, 
            you’ll starve for days, nightmares 

            thrashing their jagged leather through you. 
      All summer you’ll rapture through 
suicide’s clutch. Do you think of olives, 

those musk pearls? Pleasure straight 
      from the tree. Do you hold them in your mind, 
            Vincent, like betrayal, like anything 

            so beautiful you can’t look away—
      Mount Gaussier, clouds rushing, starlings 
iridescent as they plunder and burn? 

Sara Henning is the author of View from True North, chosen by Adrian Matejka as cowinner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. It went on to win the 2019 High Plains Book Award. Terra Incognita, her collection of elegies written for her mother, was chosen by Rebecca Morgan Frank as the 2021 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize (Ohio University Press, 2022). Her latest collection of poems, Burn, is a Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Editor’s Selection and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2024. As a current assistant professor of creative writing at Marshall University, Sara considers her connection to the Appalachian region to be where she lives, writes, and teaches. Before her time at Marshall, she grew up in north Georgia in a county adjacent to the southern region of Appalachia.