Florence + the Machine has a song called “Howl,” which I have loved since my brother first introduced me to the band back in November. I can always tell a song strikes a certain chord in me when, every time I hear it, I choreograph to it. “Howl” is just such a song. If I was still dancing–and had a modern dance troupe at my disposal–my number could knock your socks off, kids. Incidentally, yesterday was the first time I watched the song’s official music video, and I am not impressed. Perhaps because the dance I’ve been envisioning is much more primal, throbbing, angry, chaotic, and this video just seems…tame in comparison. When I hear “Howl,” I see something wild. I see something like, well, this poem I’ve recently written.

This poem is basically a purging of an issue I’ve been struggling with for the past few months. Okay, the past twenty-five years and few months. It’s been stomping around in my head for a long while, and for weeks now, it’s been getting bigger, heavier, pushing at my skull, doing somersaults on my tongue, trying to find a way out, and never succeeding. I would attempt to explain it to someone, anyone, and inevitably, I would fail. So I had no choice but to keep it trapped in my mind, running rampant and beating on my skull like a drum.

But this weekend, Brandi wrote a poem and shared it with me, and just like hearing “Howl,” her poem struck a chord. That chord stuck around, humming. I listened to “Howl” again, and then, finally–thank God–the combination split an opening in my subconscious and let out the beast. This is one of many reasons I maintain, and have always maintained, the belief that art informs art. I would not be the writer I am if I’d never danced, something I only began to realize a few years ago, when everyone in my workshops kept commenting on how “lyrical” my work is. (Me? Lyrical? All right.) I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I didn’t love music with every ache of my bones, didn’t create soundtracks for every novel and story I write. I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I hadn’t studied art or had never picked up a camera. Nor would I be the writer I am if I didn’t speak with other writers and artists, taking the time to see the world as they see it–sometimes, it is precisely that slightly altered vision that gives you the impetus to realize your own.

Because of all these things–because art informs and breeds and cultivates art–I was given a way to release what has been disturbing me for a long, long time. And that release happened to come in the form of a poem, which takes its primary inspiration from “Howl” and borrows from Brandi’s poem the refrain of every line beginning with “to.” Now, this poem doesn’t give me any answers to my predicament, and in fact, ever since I’ve written it, I’ve felt gutted. I sit at my desk, pull my knees to my chest, but I can’t seem to get small enough. I lie in bed under a pile of blankets, but I can’t get warm. The only thing I seem able to pray is, “Hide me.” But that’s the way of it sometimes. I don’t regret writing this. Because despite the vulnerability now crowding in on me, having this poem on paper does, somehow, make me feel less burdened, and that is no small thing. It has kicked the beast out of my head and into the open air, exposing it, but also giving me a way to show it to others. Now I have something I can point to and say, “This, right here, this is the problem, this is exactly how it is.” So with that, I give you my latest poem, and this, to whatever end, is exactly how it is.


to the howl

By Jessica Lynne Henkle

to the howl
to the bloody-footed march of it
to the bend and writhe and pain of it
to the first taste
to our tongues of muscle
to the hunt in primal forests
to beasts that you unleashed
to the dogs that chase them down
to men and to their guns
to the throbbing, heated pulse of it
to the sins of your flesh
to my sin of the heart
to knowing right from wrong, and changing it
to the blindfolded black of it
to the restless toss and turn
to sweat and sheets and pillows clutched
to the not-enough weight of it
to the deep-chest ache of it
to breaths that won’t come
to the gulp of air that comes too soon
to knowing, and never knowing enough
to the brain-wracking angst of it
to the shame of sacred covenants
to confusion
to wandering in the gray, and loving it
to the willing dismissal
to the briar and thistle
to the loud, beating drum of it
to the thrum of the body, and hating it
to rending the heart
to scattering sheep
to the wolf
to the soul-knitting ache of it
to baiting your quarry
to the crosses we carry
to the burden
to boundaries
to the confines of God
to the bone-deep quake of it

to dragging myself out of it
to pulling myself into it
to denial
to the temple of you in the woods
to the worship
to a bullet between the eyes
to the carcass hung and dressed
to the power of it
to the shame of it
to blood on my hands
to the gathering of lambs
to the Shepherd
to being washed clean
to the baptismal pool of it
to the silence
to the skin
to the whisper, wind-swept howl
to the soft, persistent curse of it
to the devil
to the tree I’m pinned against
to the scars on your back and my cries in the night
to praying
to a bark and full-moon braying
to the quiet
to the chasm
to the gap that’s formed between us
to the falling
to the catching
to the day of clouds and darkness