Selections from the Book of Questions

What Is Worth Saving?

We can only toss back and forth

between the casual and the dire—

the first can make a year out of downsizing,

holding up each scarf, coffee mug,

parsing out the clench of possession.

The other screams with clarity’s flash

when the car skids off the road, the fire jumps

the canyon and roils toward the ones

in the carefully tended space.

A woman returns to the wreckage

of her childhood after the Malibu fires

charged the old neighborhood

and cannot tell where the walls had been.

Through the idea of the door she walks

still observing the step of threshold.

The only objects unscathed are the grill

and terra cotta pots. Lemon tree

she’d played under centers the yard,

its squat frame charred but in place,

trunk no wider than a girl’s wrist,

each lean branch bowing with the weight,

the rinds blackened, at least a hundred

to the winter crop. She tugs one off,

still the resistant give of stem,

peeling back the ashy membrane

where the oils gather, and the fruit is plump

with flesh ripe and tart. She breaks open

the earth. Drenches her mouth.


How do you resist longing?

Our first summer in the redwoods of Humboldt, California,an outbreak of rabies struck the gray foxes. We’d see them curled up on stumps or under ferns—not foaming, not growling, not poised to bite—but yawning, dreamy-eyed, sleepy as infants.I longed to hold them, pet the gray fur, tickle the pointed chins. We were supposed to call animal control whenever we saw one so that they could come and shoot it. Sick foxes were easy to shoot because they didn’t move. I imagine the officers could see the blue of their own uniforms reflected back in the wide pupils, see themselves draw their guns and aim. I never called. Neither did my fiancé. We had a silent agreement to remain mystified by the trees, to let answers blur in the gloaming. Darkness doesn’t fall like they say it does, but rather we turn into the earth’s shadow, the rising sun just one star in a swarm of a hundred billion. I don’t know if this is comforting or terrifying. To be a cell on a wing. Night brought cries from the forest, and in my dreams I searched bramble for babies, babies turning into foxes, foxes turning into babies—I’d offer my breast and wake in sweat just before the bite. I was rabid for love. We’d make it on the floor, resisting nothing, thinking each time we’d made a life, held in what Kimmerer calls “that long blue moment,” but the life never seemed to want to stay, and anyways, we were chronically poor, and I didn’t know I was about to fall sick for years, lose my ability to walk, shower, drive, regulate my body temperature, and what kind of mother would I have been then? Soon I’d change my mind about the foxes,how I should have reported them every time, how a bullet can sometimes—though rarely—be an act of kindness. Soon I’d find less value in the ache and long for starlight instead, the guarantee of being carried into the shadow and back out again.


Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of Little Spells (New Issues Press), How to Live on Bread and Music, which received the James Laughlin Award, the Perugia Press Prize and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize, and Salt Memory. She lives in Redlands, California, and teaches at the University of Redlands.

L. I. Henley is the author of Whole Night Through (What Books, forthcoming), Perugia Press Prizewinner Starshine Road, These Friends These Rooms, and two chapbooks. She lives in Joshua Tree, California, and teaches at Craft on Community College.