Pleiades Press. 2016. 96pp
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.
The book unfolds in five sections, each exploring the role of the mother in appropriately titled sections that ask the reader to view the speaker in different settings. Each one carries the thread of motherhood and reveals a new surprising aspect of the landscape that the role entails.
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