“Terra Inferna”

A Poem by Sara Henning

March 7, 2022  By Sara Henning

When my mother died, I dreamed of a man
rough-sketching on gesso, palette knife scraping
the angles of a woman’s face. He knuckles
thin washes of color, the way a man might thumb
through a woman, exulting her, erasing her.
He’s famous for his horses, hunger-hardened
and sensual, pupils blown open by violence
or love. Others thrash with their hooves,
escapists hurling forward. I dreamed
of the teenage girl always ghosting the interior,
cut-off blue jeans, black camisole, smoke
clenching her body in its silt halo. There’s a Zippo
next to her, a crushed pack of Lucky Strikes.
Her off-frame stare says, Listen. It says, I want
to tell you everything.
Once, a mare thrust
her muzzle into the shotgun window of his 1967
Chevy Nova—this was years ago—Tulsa,
a whole afternoon of hooky in the field off
Route 66 by the high school. Rabbits, tonguing
the husks off of sweet corn. His back,
sunburned as raw prayer, as the radio pulses
Van Morrison. The girl in the back seat,
offering him her body. The mare’s face
in the window is a flash, a sudden weapon.
She could break the young man reaching for her,
crush his hands with her jaw. She could bite
the girl until her skin gapes and slips,
flesh pooling in plush knots. I think of this image
when I close my eyes—a girl so lovely
it hurts to look at her, a mare wild enough
to end everything, a mane that smells
like sex, prairie fire, rabbits seething
their death song into the glare. The man
will call it some heart’s undoing, as if
to repeat the thing you most want will keep it
holy. Like the night his girl falls asleep,
her cigarette glimmering. He won’t be able
to unsee it—her soul lunging its muscled heat
into air, screams chased down by darkness.
Or the mare, always the mare—feral elegy
he’ll snare into oil, her mane so light-tangled
it could be burning.

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Terra Incognita

From Terra Incognita: Poems (Athens: Ohio University Press, Copyright ©2022). Reprinted with the permission of Ohio University Press.

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Sara Henning
Sara Henning
Sara Henning is the author of View from True North, cowinner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and the 2019 High Plains Book Award. Her honors include the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, the George Bogin Memorial Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and awards from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been published in journals such as Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Crazyhorse, Meridian, and the Cincinnati Review. She lives and writes in Nacogdoches, Texas, where she serves as coordinator of the BFA program in creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University and poetry editor for Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

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