A Day Like Today, poetry by Barbara Henning
Negative Capability Press, 2015
I felt completely at home in this book. Not all books are like that. Not all books provide a haven for the mind, a quiet place of reflection that at once feels warm and candid while maintaining a large, wide-ranging perspective of life. I don’t want to feel hugged by a book, but I do like to feel unguarded and easy, free to wander at will and allow myself the luxury of divagation, aided by the pulse of words in a fluent meander.
The poems in this collection are short, none longer than a single page, presented in neat columns whose line breaks have a pleasantly arbitrary looseness, as if they could be swept up and put into prose. But they’re not. Their construction has a subtle importance: they focus the attention lightly, gracefully, so that non-sequiturs emerge almost imperceptibly. One will be reading about an African man practicing postures preparatory to yoga meditation and then suddenly find oneself reading about “the famous feathered / dinosaur archaeopteryx” which “seems to have had a penchant / for fossilizing in painful / positions.” This may not be a good example of the kind of abrupt non-sequiturs lying in wait throughout this collection, but it does serve to illustrate how wide-ranging Henning’s musings can be. First the image of a man with dreadlocks flexing and opening his body to supple exercise followed by the scientific image of an ancient bird in angular disaster. The contrast is sharp yet innocent of contrivance. It seems natural, and invites the mind to further delights of contrast and comparison.
Henning describes her process in a poem titled “Family Economics.” She refers to the poet Edward Dahlberg whose “philo-analytic” mind segues easily into “the mind of his mother, / Lizzy, a lady barber / in Kansas City.” She compares Dahlberg’s fluidity of mind to a “jazz jam session, whatever / here and there, wherever / the mind goes the mind / goes, a lettuce factory / in California where robots / pack boxes beside human / workers.” The latter image seems to be the very opposite of what Henning is talking about, which largely seems to be the point of its surprise. The supple drift of a mind in reverie focused, abruptly, on a line of workers, human and robot, the horrific counterpart of reverie, is deftly apropos. Of course, were I one of those unhappy workers, you can be sure I’d be deep in daydreaming.
Henning’s poems are richly detailed, particularly with domestic items and circumstances, which make a wonderful contrast to the newspaper headlines, computers and iPads and modern technology, and whatever else phenomena happens to be out there in the cosmos which she laces in and out, intertwines, as it were, with the events in her immediate vicinity, however seemingly mundane. Nothing is left out. Nothing even seems to be favored over another but coolly, fluently, flowing through the poem-as-gestalt-mediumistic-cosmic-yoga-machine.
A resident of New York City, the imagery of Henning’s neighborhood is largely urban, traffic whooshing by her window or riding on the subway while nursing a bad cough. It is within her musings and walks within the city that we discover whatever else may be occurring in the world, be it the skin of a fresh pea, rain drops hitting the pavement, arthritic hands of an aging friend and poet, trillions of snowflakes swirling with the wind, or the tentacles of a solar-powered cell-phone charger charging up. Here, for example, is “The Way of Qi:”
Sitting on a bench behind
the Krishna tree, we talk
about how trees know how
to grow in particular directions
so to maintain balance. Three
young men and a woman play
their guitars and a trumpet.
One of them starts singing:
I keep hanging on. We search
on our cells for the songwriter.
Simply Red - once a young man
and ten albums later a middle-
aged guy. Under the Krishna
tree my cell rings. A friend has
cirrhosis and hepatitis and
didn’t know it. Follow your
spine with your breath, from
your tailbone to the occipital
ridge of your scull. A spacecraft
is currently speeding toward
a close encounter with Pluto,
and Dr. Stern warns, Get used to
planets unlike Earth ruling.
While writing this poem, I’m
under a cotton sheet with tiny
blue flowers and green polka dots
and the guys upstairs are softly
opening their bed. The cars rev up
mid block and then rush past us.
It wasn’t until I typed this poem up that I noticed ‘skull’ was spelled ‘scull.’ Is that intentional, a pun on ‘skull’ (the skull as a scull, a small light racing boat) or a typo. Either way, I like it.
I had to look up the word ‘qi’ on Wikipedia. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
In traditional Chinese culture, qi (more precisely qì, also chi, ch’i, or ki) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as “natural energy,” “life force,” or “energy flow.” Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of “qi” is “breath,” “air,” or “gas.” Concepts similar to qi can be found in many cultures, for example, prana in the Hindu religion, pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culture, lüng in Tibetan Buddhism, ruah in Hebrew culture, and vital energy in Western philosophy… Elements of the qi concept can also be found in Western popular culture, for example “The Force” in Star Wars. Notions in the West of energeia, élan vital, or “vitalism” are purported to be similar. The etymological explanation for the form of the qi logogram (or chi) in the traditional form is “steam rising from rice as it cooks.” The earliest way of writing qi consisted of three wavy lines, used to represent one’s breath seen on a cold day.
And who is Dr. Stern? It sounds like somebody from a Bob Dylan song. Dr. Stern, it appears, is S. Alan Stern, an American planetary scientist and principal investigator of the New Horizon mission to Pluto and the Chief Scientist at Moon Express.
Henning is right about Simply Red (actually the name of the popular 80s English band, whose lead singer was red-headed Mick Hucknall). Mick Hucknall is now 54 years old. He’s still got his red hair, which he keeps long and wavy, but his face has all the sags and wrinkles that come with that age. I was pleasantly surprised to discover him on the Amnesty International compilation of Dylan covers on which Hucknall sings “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” which originally appeared on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
I also like the way Henning plays “Krishna tree” off the usual seasonal “Christmas Tree.”
A Day Like Today is divided into five sections. All four seasons are represented as Henning travels through the year. Winter has two sections. The collection begins with winter and ends with winter.
In “Up Early Peddling,” the first poem of the book, we find Henning “peddling against / the wind, swerving around / trucks and cars unloading / beer and children.” That image serves metaphorically to register the tenor of the collection, the quick aberrations, the day-to-day struggles, the spontaneity and funny synchronicities of any given day.