September 12, 2016

Jennifer Givhan

THE CHEERLEADERS

If you have not written your cheerleader poem, they’re good for many things.
—The Writers’ Conference

I want to defend the cheerleaders
to those who’ve said it was anti-feminist
how the girls here at the mountain camp
in the Sierra Nevadas among the Jeffrey pine
with its bark that smells of vanilla and
Bailey’s Irish Cream, which I first tasted
when I was in high school, at a party,
are rural and white, how they’re too young
for sex but will be too young
sexualized, those bright pink blooming
bows in their hair, tightly coiled
with immaculate white woven through
their chanting as if in ecstasy
everything, how here among the white-
flowered cat paws that lie close to the ground
each cold summer night but then rise
toward the sun come noon, the cheerleaders
are shouting for themselves, but at home,
for the team, for the boys, toward the moon
the way I was a cheerleader in the Southwestern
desert twenty minutes from the Mexicali
border in the egg-frying heat, in the blistering
heat of the summer, and my boyfriend,
after spooning me all day in the guest bed
at his nana’s, would drive me to afternoon
practice; I’d fit my thick thighs
into tight Lycra shorts, pull taut
my dark hair and bother anyway with bronze
Covergirl foundation and glittered purple eyeliner
though I’d sweat it all off in an hour
of basing a basket toss, of being the one to lift another
girl freer than me, the one who kept flying girls
from falling to packed-earth, scorched
desert dirt below our white and silver gel-inspired
ASICS training shoes with flexible soles
for dancing, but one girl flew to the left
of our interlocked crisscrossed arm basket
and we couldn’t catch her before
she landed on her side, on her chest, palms
face down but she didn’t break any bone
or the baby we found three weeks later
growing well below her bruised ribcage.
I want to defend these girls in the tall grass
with their backs to the lake with their black
and red skirts that resemble fringed tutus
or costume burlesque, their cheer faces
like masks I’d put on and practice
when my mother asked why I was moody
and what were the bruises purpling my arms
my hips my thighs. What’s not feminist
about this, how the sport could send us—
most of whom had never been on a plane
since there was no airport in our town
besides barns for crop dusters—
to New York City. It’s not recklessness or
drunkenness but the culture its lack
of options, how I wanted to dance
where there were no dance schools
where the only art was sprayed on the bellies
of walls where resistance meant
disobeying our parents meant breaking
curfew meant bonfires in barrels
meant sex between sweet smelling stacks
of alfalfa beside hay bales beside ditchwater.
I want to defend these cheerleaders
in their sassy and hopeful irreverent poses
how Nietzsche says metaphor is desire
to be somewhere else, how the cheerleaders
are likewise, how the pouty lips they taught us
are openly mocked, how the meanest of us
the toughest the loudest to cheer
remind me still of the pinecones that’ll stay
closed with pitch until hit with fire
then open, that need damage, how some seeds
need a bit of abuse before they can germinate
like forest freeze, like fire, an animal’s gut,
these serotinous cones that the lodgepole pine
give of themselves to be hurt, they aren’t thinking
of this or of anything as they lift toward the sky
and take root. I want to defend them,
the cheerleaders, of my girlhood
of the go! of the big blue!
now that I know it meant out.

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016

__________

Jennifer Givhan: “The cheerleaders glittering in front of me as I sat down at a picnic table beside the mountain lake with my notebook ready to write my evening poem at the writers’ workshop—it was a different life I lived when my dreams were pinned to dance instead of poetry, but not really. That’s what this poem hopes to capture. It’s the same dream that makes us cheer or fall or write, isn’t it? The cheerleaders still had much to teach me, after all these years.” (website)

Rattle Logo

March 9, 2016

Jennifer Givhan

THE GLANCE

Through window through curtains wide through
singing after shower through racial lines and statutory
laws through landscape pebbles off the complex
path through morning’s rituals before the sun could rise
through glass pane while I dreamt in our bed while our plump
brown baby slept in his slatted crib through slanted white
light through window on your way to work you heard
a song you heard a sweet song and turned your head toward
the naked girl. When the police knocked on our door.
When the police came to our door. Let me rephrase
that. When the police. They claimed you climbed
on a rock. They claimed it was a shower, the white
girl’s white mother. They claimed the window
was the shower’s and the window eight feet high.
They claimed you carried ladders or were made of stilts
or could form pebbles into whole rocks for climbing.
They made signs they posted on our door.
They made signs for better watch our backs.
They made signs for night watch for on guard
for dark man with Afro. After we’d moved away
after we’d hired a lawyer and the case was dropped
for lack of evidence after there was no rock
after we’d claimed the jagged edges of any safe space
we could, in Koreatown, where I daily pushed
our baby’s stroller through the apartment’s garden
with koi ponds past doorways that smelled of boiled
fish and our baby learned to name the things he saw
nice tree the oak with gall, the spindle wasp gall that leaves
had formed like scar tissue around the wound
where insect larva were eating their way through
the window of a neighbor’s home I looked up
and watched a round man from the shower, letting
towel slip I couldn’t look away from this strange
intoxicating body in front of me. We know
nothing happened after that. I took our boy
home. I cooked us all dinner. We shut the blinds.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

[download audio]

__________

Jennifer Givhan: “In the early summer on a balcony in Squaw Valley, I watched the morning light across the pines in the distance and thought about the lives lost this year to ingrained racist norms and the shattering of homes when the police come bearing the news to the families. ‘The Glance’ is based on a very real trauma inside my own biracial home—and only this year have I been able to put the pieces together enough that I could write about my experience. The truth is that my family shut the blinds, and, for a long while, I shut my heart in self-defense. But it has torn open. This poem is a tearing open.” (website)

Rattle Logo

May 3, 2015

Jennifer Givhan

THE POLAR BEAR

I’m just another asshole sitting behind a desk writing about this
–Facebook status update

What I’m asking is will watching The Discovery
Channel with my young black boy instead
of the news coverage of the riot funerals riot arrests
riot nothing changes riots be enough to keep him
from harm? We are on my bed crying for what we’ve done
to the polar bears, the male we’ve bonded with on-screen
whose search for seals on the melting ice has led him
to an island of walruses and he is desperate, it is late-
summer and he is starving and soon the freeze
will drive all life back into hiding, so he goes for it,
the dangerous hunt, the canine-sharp tusks
and armored hides for shields, the fused weapon
they create en masse, the whole island a system
for the elephant-large walruses who, in fear, huddle
together, who, in fear, fight back. This is not an analogy.
The polar bear is hungry, but the walruses fight back.
A mother pushes her pup into the icy water
and spears the hunter through the legs, the gut,
his blood clotting his fur as he curls into the ice
only feet away from the fray—where the walruses
have gathered again, sensing the threat has passed.
My boy’s holding his stuffed animal, the white body
of the bear he loves, who will die tonight (who
has already died) and my boy asks me if this is real.
What I’m asking is how long will we stay walruses,
he and I, though I know this is not an analogy.

Poets Respond
May 3, 2015

[download audio]

__________

Jennifer Givhan: “My son and I watch science shows because he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Online, the morning after we watched a show about the ice caps, I watched a mother taking her son away from the Baltimore riots and I wrote this poem.” (website)

Rattle Logo

January 17, 2013

Jennifer Givhan

AN EDITOR ADVISED ME TO STOP WRITING
MOTHER BIRD POEMS

The kitchen of my past smells of carne adovada
and green chiles blackened on the comal.
These days, I don’t even like to boil eggs for fear
I’ll overcook them—the whites will ooze
through cracked shells streaming into grungy
water I’ve forgotten to salt. My family could
eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner
every night without complaint.

I sit down to write and wonder what’s the point?
No matter how many beautiful stories
I create, some man whose uncle raped his mother
will snatch a young boy from the sidewalk
while he walks home, his mama waiting
two blocks away for his cowboy hat
to turn the corner. But the hat
never comes, and the boy

she nursed and sang to—Twinkle Star
over and over, pouring bathwater to soothe
his fear of No More Tears suds
because even those burn—that boy
who learned to read by memorizing
all the books at bedtime but never
would eat anything green not
smothered in barbecue sauce. Gone.

They’ll find his body, sure.
The mother will mourn. Many of us will vow
never to let our children walk alone.
I will walk with my children
until they’re eighty. But then my boy will run
ahead in the mall, and I’ll lose him
for a split second. A split second.
It won’t matter how many poems

I’ve written or dinners I’ve cooked or baths
I’ve given. Except that it will.
As the peanut butter matters. The salt in the water.
The boy on the street, his too-large cowboy boots
forever walking home toward his mama.
His mama, forever on the porch,
searching the skyline for a hat.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012

Rattle Logo