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.
Givhan conveys the precarious nature of living in small towns, here. In one of the early poems in the first section, “Town of Foolish Things,” Givhan’s speaker situates the reader: “We parked his pickup in haystacks tall as buildings & casting deep ochre shadows, keg between / my legs, stainless steel freezing skin.” In such places, one can easily feel “alive & dead once for years / in the town of survival, for years in the town / of aftermath.” The tension in these lines offers a sense of the impossibility of escape one feels living in a small town and, at the same time, how one makes the most of the experience.
As Givhan’s poems suggest, however, people in such situations often cope with their circumstances in foolish ways. This sense of foolishness is seen clearly in the amusement and the consequences of boredom: “Here’s how it felt— / Hotel California on the stereo, shower-steam / ghosting a hallway, chile con carne on a hotplate. / I drank too much & swallowed something precious.” Givhan renders the particulars of girlhood in small towns, complete with its blend of both alienation and familiarity. The hominess of “chile con carne” and “hotplate” becomes something more significant for the speaker; these domestic images are imbued with something akin to magic.
These ordinary objects are treated with reverence as a way to cope with the staleness of small-town life. Givhan’s speaker finds comfort in these objects, but seeks to split from attachments. The last lines of the poem signal how easily this sense of wonder in the everyday can disappear and lead to disappoint for the speaker: “Was the worm in my belly a dream? Town of crossings / town of bottle-smashing, still—town of broken things.” The speaker finds herself between the crumbling world of girlhood and adulthood, which alludes to the growth of the speaker in later poems.
Givhan’s inventive attitudes about limitation and possibility are palpable in “Chicken-Hearted,” a sestina that begins with advice from a mother. This form relies on the repetition of certain words at the ends of its lines, and here Givhan surprises with her choice to use “chicken,” “heart,” and “pregnant” in these positions. When juxtaposed, they create an eerie tension that speaks to the complexities of the mother’s relationship to her daughter: “She’d peck at me to sterilize / my body like the kitchen, the chicken, my own pink pregnant / belly ache. She’s have me scoop out my own heart / to make a point.” The visceral images push against the body and ask the reader to consider the blurred role/relationship between both women and how they can hurt each other. By the end of the poem we learn “The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart / to sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleanser or flu / or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.” Closing on such an image asks the reader to consider the messiness of how one copes with the demands of the domestic roles that a woman takes on.
Givhan’s language continuously pushes the reader into strange new territory. In Givhan’s crown of sonnets, titled “A Crown for Headless Mama in 14x14 Box,” she writes a disembodied self using a Latin American folktale as an epigraph. In the folktale, we read about a woman who disappears every night to transform into a headless phantom. Each sonnet reimagines some form of the folktale and asks us to witness headless or disappearing bodies. The final sonnet treats the first line of the opening stanzas as material to disembody. In this way, Givhan is able to excavate and resurrect the body to reclaim it for the speaker’s own purpose. “You know there is a story here. Right it,” the speaker says. The homophonic play on “Right it” implies a story that was wrong. The lines that follow pilfer from the previous stanzas and reinvent them. The last line dialogues with the first line from section one and finds the speaker laughing at the mother: “In the end was cake. I laughed when you said / that you woke up today & saved a life.” Through this theme of bodily construction and transformation of the speaker, themes of birth and gestation become prominent as the poems move towards the final section.
Immediately, the metamorphosis of the speaker in “Desert Duende” is palpable in the section titled “Innerscape (The Miscarrying Artist).” It begins: “loaded she says. loaded. / but locked” and then, “bullhorns. bullets. bullshit. / unloaded.” The language here unsettles us with images of violence in suspension. The section titles lend the reader a lens to view the violence as a preparation for what’s to come. The use of the word “artist” suggests that perhaps there’s more to the suspense. The last poem of the section, “After the Miscarriage(s),” offers hope in its closing lines: “What else but ourselves could we hold / when the world began.” The gestation of the book here turns against disappointment and finds light in a new beginning.
In this new beginning, the reader arrives at the fourth section of the book: “Moonscape As Mama, or The Artist Births Herself.” Givhan leaves the world of girlhood, motherhood, and considers what will become of the things the speaker has created. How does creation transform the speaker? Poems like “Creation of Birds” and “You Can’t Squeeze Blood Out of a Turnip” reflect on how unexpected outcomes can teach the speaker to learn to love and give.
The speaker in these poems knows that this acceptance love and offering take time. There’s an embrace of the “pause” in a poem like “Still Life Reviving,” where the speaker considers the painting “Naturaleza muerta resucitando” by Remedios Varo. The title is a translation of the painting in English and works alongside Remedios’ name, which, when translated into English, means “remedy.” The speaker uses the remedy to carry a still-life into a reinvention of her narrative when she closes the poem with the line: “Remedios’ mother named her / to heal her broken heart, a baby / to replace the daughter she’d lost— / That’s not just God’s magic, child / I imagine her mother told her / but the artist’s.” Through this meditation, the speaker offers the reader a literal birth of herself as the artist and we are able to transition to a new section, a new landscape: “Ariel View of Motherhood, or Mama Rising.”
The final section illuminates and reinvents the previous landscapes by allowing the speaker to use her imagination in a more comforting way. The speaker is comfortable with carrying elephants, killing spider eggs, and, at last, vulnerability. In a poem like “Bloom,” the speaker has a new perspective after comforting her son:
My boy brings me an impossible blossom
from his tree, for perhaps it was his all along,
tree that didn’t even bud springtime when
all the other neighborhood trees were proud, colorful
with blooms. I’ve carried these hurts since childhood
like large plants in deep ceramic pots. I keep
them in the shade of a spare room that cannot get
enough light. I water them too often, & they sag.
I search our parched corner of the backyard
but cannot see where he found it--this gift
he’s still enough to accept, & he’s giving me.
The close of the poem here offers new light in the darkness that came before, so that the speaker in “Nocturne” can say that Mama “gave [them] song as gesture / for the pain.” The trials the speaker faced were pains, but now that pain is transformed into song.
As a book, Givhan’s poetry is organized in a thoughtful and deliberate way. As a first book, it offers many lessons on how to heighten the tension of poems dealing with obsessions. The narrative of each poem dialogues with the central themes of motherhood in its multiple complexities and allows them to blossom into surreal landscapes the speaker deals with. The book builds and pushes on its themes and illuminates the dark side of mother/girlhood. These poems are dark and risky and unafraid to get real.