Guilty Prayer, by Steve Henn (Main Street Rag, 2021)
Review by Charles Farmer
Two years ago, I checked into a rehabilitation clinic to kick an alcohol addiction. I brought along a few changes of clothes and some books: the who’s-who anthology, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry; and some volumes about the writer-as-drinker—Charles Jackson’s harrowing The Lost Weekend; Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs; and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. I hoped I’d have enough down time between counseling sessions to read with a clear head and conscience, something I’d been unable to do for the previous five years. I’d come to romanticize a lonely and calamitous routine of reading at my favorite bar until closing time, my head down in a book with an unspoken agreement with the bartender to refill my vodka sodas. It’d been years since I’d been sober enough to remember what I’d read the previous evening. For years, I’d told my students about literature’s power to restore, affirm, and heal, and settling into my residency, I hoped to validate my beliefs and fall in love again with living. Over time I did, and poetry remains essential to my sobriety. Reading poets—such as Raymond Carver, Nick Flynn, Hala Alyan, and Kaveh Akbar—who have made sense of and survived addiction and ruin provides me a sense of communion that I can’t find elsewhere.
Steven Henn’s latest chapbook, Guilty Prayer, offers me another instance for fellowship. Confronting his ex-wife Lydia’s addictions and eventual suicide, as well as his own drinking and depression, Henn finds life in the aftermath. Honesty is fundamental—Henn eschews the best-seller redemptive narrative arc and the platitudes typical of the language of recovery. Instead, Henn’s poems are unblinking, intimate accounts of a near-recovery. Confessional writing is a loaded term, conjuring accusations of oversharing and exploitation, but Guilty Prayer doesn’t read like an exercise in emotional manipulation. Instead, Henn delivers clear-eyed honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability.
Alcohol’s and drug’s seduction can be painless, effortless: “You can waste your whole cussed life/ Romanticizing the Dark Side,” Henn tells us in “What Darth Vadar Taught Me.” He recognizes a beloved trope: The creator fueled by substances, the artist who can access their creativity only after a few drinks or pills— their wit, sensitivity, and language sharpened by hard living. It sounds almost mystical, like Bukowski giving himself to his muse. Yet the poem ends with the reality: “Then I passed out/ of consciousness, not knowing if or when I would wake.” How do you romanticize that?
Henn doesn’t. Guilty Prayer revisits his traumas under a poetic microscope, one raw crisis, lyric after lyric. Confrontation defeats denial and deflection. In the haunting “Lydia,” Henn recounts the details of Lydia’s suicide and visiting her body with their children before cremation. There is a feeling of ownership as Henn talks to her:
the trouble you put me through but nobody
says anything, not to me anyway, about how I
could be trouble for you. Nobody sees how I see
me seeing you.
Embracing the particulars in poems like “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude,” “Poem for the Mother of My Children,” and “Thank You, Lydia for Our Boy,” respectively, Henn addresses his late ex-wife. These poems aren’t chances for cheap voyeurism; they’re a means of assessing blame and responsibility, reckoning with hindsight, confronting parenthood, post-tragedy.
There’s an unrelenting, impossible wound:
Now I sleep on the lump in the middle,
As if wearing a hairshirt, or slack cloth,
Familiar like an injury that doesn’t heal
The need for explanation, the search for breaking points, reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s “The Shoelace”:
I wonder if it was an inability
to cope with 1000 minor disappointments
that drove you to put the belt
around your neck.
And a plea for mercy:
God forgive me for all the things
I blamed [my son’s] mother for.
Elsewhere, there are disenchantment and disappointment with a world that might offer happiness. Poems like “Dank Memes” find futility in friendships; “A Species of Creature” indicts the internet’s lack of humanity; “What I’m All About” and “The Woman Who Got Weirded Out I Wasn’t Eating” find the speaker back in the dating pool, but in a world of online mismatches and scams. Never far from children’s well-being, Henn acknowledges a world that has resigned itself to the normality of school shootings in “Role Playing Games.”
Yet there are reasons for hope. Zeb, an old acquaintance, returns in “Love Letter to an Old Friend,” whose reaching out inspires an urgency: “I want to tell you while I still can/ no gesture from a friend ever meant more to me.” Most endearing is the love letter to Henn’s students, “In the Classroom,” a poem that finds discussions of poetry fostering a community marked by empathy and an affection for the written word.
Perhaps most hopeful are moments like those in “Still Life with Ceiling Fan and User’s Guilt,” where the speaker longs for lucidity, a release from a past dependent on “hallucinations and buzz.” This cry for clarity is profound, for it’s the recognition that the old life and its habits are unsustainable: “now all I want is to think/ quickly and clearly as possible.”
But what is there to do with newfound sobriety? Henn doesn’t fall back on wholesale redemption and “Lifetime” movie endings promising a return to innocence. The struggle is difficult and tedious, an endeavor full of monotony, down time, and unrest. “Recognition” captures the initial apprehension of sobriety. Here, Henn is facing a Thanksgiving sober and haunted by Lydia’s presence—no small feat. Without the crutch of substance, what does one do? In this case:
They tell me the only way through it
is to feel it. When I talk to God I say
I’ll accept anything, maybe even death,
dear Lord, but please, not this immense sadness.
Guilty Prayer’s strength is in its ambivalence, its failure to promise miracles. Yes, it’s a witness to catharsis through confession, sharing, and communion, but there’s always more work to be done. Henn writes that the stars “might be looking out for you./ Might even be editing the final cut,/ your happy ending.”
That’s a big might.
Steve Henn wrote Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson 2017), And God Said: Let there be Evolution! (NYQ Books 2012), and Unacknowledged Legislations (NYQ Books 2011). For a brief 8 issues he co-edited the defunct Fight These Bastards. He is currently working on a book of overlapping essays he calls a “memoir collage.” He lives and teaches in Indiana. Find out more at therealstevehenn.com.
Charlie Farmer is a Georgia poet and professor who loves his wife, Erin, his daughters, his friends, his cats, his students, his books, his LPs, and everything else a poet should love in life.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.