“The Cheerleaders” by Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan


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)

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