Reviewed by Sebastian H. Paramo
Jennifer Givhan’s debut collection of poetry, Landscape with Headless Mama, is the winner of the Pleiades Press Editor’s Prize. Rarely do first books feel so in control of their subject matter and in their understanding of the speaker’s self. Givhan’s language, confident and at times even raw, illustrates the brutal honesty of the speaker and her understanding of the world. As a first book, this collection is an emotional journey to motherhood and selfhood that is deeply personal, but doesn’t rely on sentimentality or the pulling of heart-strings; rather, it seeks to illuminate what it means to desire to be a mother.
Where other debuts falter by veering away from considering both the good and awful things about the self, Givhan explores the tension between the roles of daughter and mother. This connection is deepened by delving into the speaker’s anxiety about her own fertility. Not only does the book’s Southwest setting highlight the barrenness of the desert, it also asks us to consider the costs of lacking possibility and dwelling in the familiar.
In the world of Givhan’s collection, ordinary small-town lives can inspire wonder or disappointment in equal measure. The speaker learns to create comforts out of the supernatural and thus seeks ways to escape to other realms. To read this collection is to revel in the landscape of these realms inside her head. Filled with a language unique to the speaker, one feels Givhan’s desire to split from the familiar, both in a literal and figurative sense; we seek to reinvent worlds where we can feel at ease with new eyes. Givhan’s poems play an important part in building the landscape in the reader’s head for not only the poems, but each section of this brave book.