Starshine Road by L.I. Henley
Perugia Press, 2017. 72 pp.
Reviewed by Sonja Johanson
L.I. Henley’s second poetry collection, Starshine Road, is the chronicle of living in small towns edging the Mojave desert. Henley’s gaze is unshrinking; she directs our view to rust, junk, discarded shoes, flash floods, poverty and death. But Henley’s stark descriptors are not a denunciation. The thieving grackle is pearlescent, desert lilies bloom red, and a tooth-sized crystal shines in the dirt. These are love poems, but honest ones, written for a place and a life simultaneously hard and precious.
Starshine Road begins as a reverie. Many of the pieces in the opening section recall a childhood as the daughter of a divorced father. Henley’s speaker learns to shoot and to spot perverts in the grocery store. She also learns that her father’s protection comes with a certain level of menace - “his gold star pressed cold against my cheek,” and “With his welder...he creates/ a jailhouse for me to play in.”
Henley’s speaker and her father are not the only characters wandering through the poems. We meet the deteriorating grandfather, the family who babysits her, and a woman hustling money. “Dog & His Man,” skillfully written from the dog’s perspective, tells of the companionship between a homeless man and a stray: “he finds me in a box of dogs/we cry cold we live/in his shirt.” Again, Henley does not hold back with her descriptions. Through the eyes of the dog we see the reality of living homeless and the deep affection between the two.
“The man is old he shivers he dies slow
times we walk
we walk in snow he shivers he dies slow”
“I pull out my bones and make a bed frame….
I lie on top of him
as a blanket”
The “Shoe Tree,” a roadside tamarisk festooned with footwear, claims its own space as a player in the book. It is the central character in a twelve-part poem. As Henley’s speaker contemplates its role, she explores what gives our existence meaning. Is the tree defined by its classification? Is it a failure if it loses its decor? Is it lightened when a woman removes them, and is it ever possible to escape such a burden? Who sees it? Who ignores it? Is it the devil? Fate? A god? “Tamarisk, I’m not saying we deserve forgiveness,/but if we did,/would you give it?”
Henley’s speaker also revisits and explores her relationship with her mother, her parents’ divorce, and later, her own young divorce. In “We Girls,” Henley lists the lessons girls learn from their mothers - “at the razor’s smiling glint how something so sharp/could be run along the skin…” With her mother, the speaker experiences home invasion and flash flood, metaphors for constant danger against which women have to be vigilant. Henley’s speaker also alludes to her own experience with cancer, “He’ll be the lump in my breast”, and “What did it mean that we were afraid of small things/ marble-sized explosions on a screen blurs on x-rays.”
Throughout the collection, Henley manages pacing through careful use of white space. Lines most often stand alone or in couplets; few poems have long stanzas, and none are regular. Henley makes frequent use of medial caesura, and she drops and breaks lines in unexpected places, stopping the reader and making her linger on tight phrases. She also uses litany to illuminate the landscape; several poems are lists of what can be found in a junk pile. She lists facts which are purportedly about lightning, and which are actually anything but; offers a catalogue of items you can find when lost in the desert. Henley’s gaze controls the reader’s gaze, and she points us to places we might not otherwise look.
The collection ends with the speaker considering leaving the desert, and highlights the love and grief she feels at the possibility.
“You say you want to leave
& go back to the city as if I want you to
stand a little longer in the parking lot
of Sam’s Liquor suffer my home with me”
She concludes the collection with a laser-sharp clarity of place — a lingering, longing reflection of sand, childhood, joshua trees, and human survival at its fringes.
“the desert’s cracked egg
The thick, clear, single-celled night
all life now everything
running away from us”
Sonja Johanson has recent work appearing in the Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, and Poet Lore. She is a contributing editor at the Eastern Iowa Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks). Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine. Follow her at www.sonjajohanson.net