Literature 11-5-2007

What Light: This Week’s Poem: James C. Henderson

"What Light: This Week's Poem,” sponsored by Magers and Quinn Booksellers, brings you a poem every week by a Minnesota poet, selected by a panel of writers and publishers. Look for our anthology, “What Light,” at Magers and Quinn in Uptown or online.

James Henderson

37,000 feet

That night we lay on chaise lounge chairs and watched for shooting stars.
Amorphous trees ringed the lake and made a huge bowl of the star-strewn sky.
Too cold for mosquitoes, we huddled on sand
drained white with starlight and waited for something to move,
but nothing did—except the spinning earth
and the spiral galaxy, who flailed her grainy arms into blackest space,
while the universe expanded. But we saw no shooting stars.
The only motion was the silently blinking red and green lights
of an airliner as it traversed a straight line across the sky.
“Probably at 37,000 feet,” I said, “on a flight path from Los Angeles to New
At that height there is no oxygen, no heat.
Our atmosphere is only the thickness of the paper on a schoolroom globe.
Still, people were up there in an icy heaven—
       a woman eating a grape from a plastic cup
       a child coloring a rhinoceros pink
       a man answering “yes” to an
email on his laptop
So we watched them as they journeyed toward the horizon,
the sound of the engines not reaching us until their jet had well passed,
only a thin rush of static to mark it ever existed at all.
Then you slipped your warm hand into mine and said,
“I hope you are always happy,” like you weren’t going on with me
as we looked up at the universe from our chairs on the deck of planet earth.
And though I laughed, that is when I loved you—
because, in the face of it all, you were so calm and remarkably unafraid.


My poetry comes, as I believe much poetry does, from the interaction of nature and human nature. For me, it is of the moment, the moment when nature either causes me to recognize how I feel or creates within me a feeling. The poem is then a record of how an experience with nature—in the case of this poem, watching for shooting stars with my wife—moves me to understand my place in it. In this poem, how small and alone in the universe we as human beings are and how much we need each other and belong together.


James C. Henderson is a poet in the MFA program at Hamline University. He lives in New Brighton, Minnesota with his wife and granddaughter, both subjects and the inspiration for much of his work. His poetry has appeared online at Double Dare Press, 42opus, Poetry Midwest, and Haute-Dish.