With this selection of three poems by Donna Henderson we continue our series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
Spontaneous Human Combustion
The thought that life could ignite
without warning or wanting.
That you could burst into flames in your Laz-E-Boy,
watching the evening news.
S.H.C., it’s called in the paranormal literature,
where case descriptions abound.
Mary R. (the Cinder Woman), consumed by flame in her Florida livingroom
except for a slippered foot.
George M. of Des Moines, whose remains
strongly suggest he exploded.
Proving, to believers, a special kind of fire
(Fire from Heaven, one writer refers to it).
A sort of rapture then.
The way angels, when singing,
burn up in bliss.
Extreme stress could be the trigger
that sets the human being ablaze,
speculates another enthusiast,
who posits a preternaturally-heightened
susceptibility of cells to ignition in certain
individuals—who knows why?
Begging the question:
who would want to believe?
If it’s not preventable?
Still, it is sort of thrilling:
the thought that what sets one on fire
A conflagration about you
and you alone,
efficient and traceless,
producing a radiance
which consumes its source.
(In reports, the person burns,
but not the sofa/mattress/rug/
recliner they were lying on.)
Skeptics and detectives (as well as Mary R.’s son)
insist cigarettes and high blood-alcohol levels
explain it all
(or, in Mr. George M’s case, the tank of air
and box of “barn burner” matches
left out of his paranormal case history).
None of which evidence dissuades, in the least,
Fact is, research supporting the existence
of S.H.C. is disappointingly weaker by far
than the science refuting it.
Though forensic experts agree:
by whatever means of ignition,
women do burn quicker and hotter than men.
When it comes down to your remains,
they concede—we’re talking statistically—
it’s definitely your women that are more completely
I swam through the Eel’s deep gloom,
below the glaze and glare,
around the loom of huge stones
glowing with algae bloom.
The children’s loud play
dissolved as I swam,
as I followed the river’s bend.
In the shallows a lamprey stilled,
then bolted in a silky cloud.
(for JHH, 1920-2000)
Once, I was your other heartbeat, your deepest
center. You were the world I was and knew.
After—all your life—I thought I was unlike
you: the you I liked, and otherwise.
When you died, I began
by missing you in space—
Oh how I longed to wake into your house
to the sough of your pencil crossing a page.
To lie again on the flowered sheets of your bed
as we did near the end, watching reruns of Cheers.
And your absence in part was this– what I’d expected:
an absence outside I knew I’d get used to.
But in that after-life, I began to sense your absence
Not some consoling idea of you vaguely “around,”
but a presence—call it joy—I couldn’t name, but knew.
A quickening, a pulse,
as though something in me had loosened
to let a subtle liquid through.
It feels like my secret, but others see it, too—
a presence so close that even now
I hear my laugh sometimes, or stretch my legs just so,
and am confused, and turn to find you,
Donna Henderson’s poems, essays, reviews and song lyrics have appeared widely in magazines anthologies, and recordings. Two of her three collections of poetry, “Transparent Woman” and “The Eddy Fence”, were named finalists for an Oregon Book Award. She is a founder of Airlie Press, and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Donna lives in Maupin, Oregon, where she is in private practice as a psychotherapist. The poems in this issue are included in her forthcoming new collection, Send Word. for more information, visit www.donnacatehenderson.com.