publication date: Fri Jan 15 2021
Main Street Rag
Main Street Rag
I spent the majority of 2019 taking a class on grief counseling. It came about in an odd way, but the main reason that I took the class was because I hated that no one seemed to know how to deal with grieving people. If you come from an evangelical background, then you know: “God works all things for your good.” “His ways are higher than ours.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
Those platitudes piled against my psyche after our house burned down. We all made it out alive, so why was I so sad? Why did I wake up smelling smoke? Why did I go into panic mode if I saw the sun reflect on a pane of glass?
I delved further into the idea of grief, observing how my family members were treated when dealing with loss. Mothers stopped talking about babies that were born sleeping. Fathers never said a word about uncles lost to suicide. If they did, the room got still, quiet, and a little icy. Nobody knew what to say, so they didn’t say anything. They left the bereaved alone to mourn. Not that I’m blaming them, yet it still seems a little trite to say: “That’s just how it is.”
Enter Steve Henn. I first heard of Steve on Instagram. An account under the name of @indianasadman started following our podcast. He interacted with us a few times. I liked a few of his posts. Then, he sent a message and asked if I would like to read his book. He mentioned, or I discovered when looking into the book, that it included recovery from substance abuse and grief.
The writing is raw. From sitting in the darkness, wondering if God is real, if He cares about you, if your family would be better off without you, Henn beautifully describes this pain. He obliterates our clean, beautiful idea of religion. Instead, he brings it down to reality. Prayers are often guilty, they often are full of pain, and they are often desperate…sometimes they even have swear words. Sometimes they make no sense at all. Especially when we are experiencing trauma and loss.
Loss brings to the surface a plethora of emotions. I’ve noted that people seem to wrestle with the idea of whether or not those who have passed can see us, whether they would be pleased or upset at what we have become. Consider this excerpt of “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude,” written after Lydia Henn’s suicide:
“…I used to sleep only on my side of the bed, wondering are you haunting me, cursing or blessing me. Now I sleep on the lump in the middle, as if wearing a hairshirt, or sack cloth, familiar like an injury that doesn’t heal.” (Henn, 2021, p. 18.) And this bit from “Poem for the Mother of my Children”: “I wonder if it was an inability to cope with 1000 minor disappointments that drove you to put the belt around your neck… you felt you really had no one… Because our oldest daughter and I shared an Apple account then I know she sent you message After message, begging for response, After you were already gone.” (Henn, 2021, p. 19) Toward the end, Henn writes: “And so now I can really start asking questions: Is God benevolent Like a dictator or benign like a tumor or malignant Like the thoughts leading my thoughtless legs to the bar on a Sunday afternoon?” (Henn, 2021, p. 39)
In this book Henn cracks jokes about our obsession with internet humor—how we use it to cope, when our lives are falling apart. He sheds light on our obsession with being the only ones who have the answers: “I’ll just be rambling incoherently about my Jesus who/ is the best Jesus who is the only Jesus who is the true/ Jesus and how stupid you are because stupidly you are” (Henn, 2021, p. 34). He really made me stop and think about the American Jesus, who is all pleasure, good vibes, and no suffering; and, how we correlate God with a fairy godmother who will make our problems go away if we hope hard enough.
This is a short book. It has forty pages. Yet, it took me almost two weeks to read it. I had to stop and think about what he was saying. It was deep…I left notes in the margins, highlighted my favorite lines, and tried to strike up conversations about what it means to be human, using Henn as my reference. If you are a person who is grieving, Steve can make you feel normal.
If you are a person who is frustrated with a substance abuser, this book can help you start to understand the darkness that lurks deep in the soul of a recovered addict. If you are a religious person, this book might offend you with its open-faced criticism of religion. If you are not a religious person, you will find your questions and doubts spelled out eloquently.
This book exposes grief in its depths. From the guilt of wondering if there was something you could have done, to the haunted feelings of the “might-have-beens,” to the vulnerability of burying the love of your life. Steve tells the truth when we’d rather not talk about it. The truth that somehow manages to still be beautiful amid its agony.
Jayna Gerhart - twobluestockingspodcast.com
Book Review: Steve Henn's Guilty Prayer - Complex Distractions blog
Steve Henn is a poet living in the Midwest. He’s more than that, though. He’s a father, a teacher, a Cubs fan, and someone looking for a connection in this world. He played drums in a Guided By Voices-influenced indie rock band at one point, but I don’t think Steve puts that on his business cards. His drumming may not be something to write home about, but his writing sure is.
The reason I bring up Mr. Henn right now is because of his newest collection of poems called Guilty Prayer. His last book, Indiana Noble Sad Man Of The Year was a tight collection of frank, funny, and heartbreaking pieces about life, death, depression, drinking, and just being someone looking for meaning in the sometimes meaningless of everyday life. Not everyone can put those raw emotions into relatable art. Steve Henn can.
In Guilty Prayer, Steve writes his rawest pieces yet. It’s one of those books you sit and read without stopping till you hit the last page. Henn writes from a gut-level. There’s no mincing words or hem-hawing around a subject. There’s a balance between the hard stuff and the more palpable, though it’s all significant. Substance abuse, suicide, and grief weigh heavy here, and all are very much pulled from Steve’s life. But don’t let the heaviness steer you away. Steve dives deep, but this is pure and beautiful art. Words are the paint, and the page is his canvas.
I have to be honest, I wasn’t sure how to review a book of poems. I never realized that poetry could be this conversational and real. I was under the idiotic notion that poetry was sing-songy, melodramatic, and self-serious. Steve’s work feels more like late night confessions than poetry. A step inside a busy, worried mind trying to work out the razor-sharp emotions that keep cutting from the inside.
Pieces like “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude”, “Suicide Note”, “Poem For The Mother Of My Children”, and “Thank You, Lydia, For Our Boy” still lay heavy in my mind. Suicide isn’t the kind of subject to approach haphazardly, and Steve doesn’t. I’ve been affected by suicide more times in my life than I’d like to admit. Henn writes openly about its affect on him as a father and as someone trying to make sense of his grief.
There’s also humor here, at both the world’s and his own expense. “Dank Memes”, “The Woman Who Got Weirded Out Because I Wasn’t Eating”, and “Postpunk Lovesong In The Key Of Banal Loathing” all possess that dry Midwestern humor that if you get it it’s the best thing ever(I do get it.)
I’m quite in awe of pieces like “Seven Wonders”, “Occupational Therapy”, and “Love Letter to an Old Friend” for their structure, their labyrinthine movement, and the meaning laid out between the lines.
Steve Henn works in the cracks and crevices where the deep stuff sometimes drops and goes to seed. He takes the heaviness of existence and gives it life and a voice, in the hopes it will reach some eyes and minds and hearts that need to hear it. But the personal nature of these poems makes me think Steve Henn needs to write. That he must write. For himself.
Guilty Prayer is a collection of frank, raw, and intimate works that never tap dance around the hard stuff. It hits it straight on with eyes and arms wide open, with just the right amount of levity, humanity, and vulnerability.
- John Hubner - find this review / John's blog here: