Jennifer Givhan’s first collection, Landscape with Headless Mama (LSU Press, 2016), is a thrilling journey through the underworld of women’s relationships—with mothers, with children, with lovers, with nature—a testament to the darkness and depths that undergird, and often overtake, the search for belonging and connection. The book is organized in a series of distinct, taut folios, marking the speaker’s forward movement from being a child looking for mothering she doesn’t receive to struggling to become a mother herself, watching her children (both adopted and biological) grow and teach her how to mother them, and, ultimately, reflecting on these eternal cycles of kinship, repetition, and remaking.
The collection opens with the family the speaker is born into, and a mother who finds the task of mothering impossible. In “Karaoke Night at the Asylum,” Givhan reflects on “Mama, / who hadn’t sung to me since I was a baby & / never would again, was the lynchpin— / I’m still turning & turning the screw.” Instead of forming an identity against that of a parent, Givhan conjures self from landscape: “I am from the sagebrush, devil’s lettuce, petroglyph, / from cottonwood, fiddleneck, blast-ice basalt” (“Self Portrait As The Year’s Between Conquest, Or The Desert Must Sustain Herself”). This early lack reverberates through the collection—”I’ve carried these hurts since childhood / like large plants in deep ceramic pots.” (“Bloom”)—and drives the speaker both toward and away from familial belonging.
The men whom Givhan attempts to create family with are remote and inexplicable, blowing in and out like summer thunderstorms, as in “Chicken Hearted,” wherein “I took up with a boy who tore apart / our cold piss apartment looking for a piece of his heart / he swore I’d eaten.” They’re described with much less lyricism than that used for the self and for children; and there’s a deadened feeling to lines like “When you lived in my house / you ate cake every day. You left cigarette burns on my cushions” in “Tingo for Divorce.”
In contrast, the book comes alive when reflecting on mothering. Even the desire to mother quickens Givhan’s language and makes it sing, as in “After the Miscarriage(s),” wherein “We lived as if on an island, rubbing / salt from our hands into the pink slits / of salmon, picking lemon seeds from the skin.” There’s certainly pain here, but it’s a pain that puts the speaker in dialogue with the majesty of the natural world; in “Miscarriage Interpreted Through Animal Science,” an octopus “welds herself into / a cracked teapot she’d grown fond of / then dries up.” We then follow the speaker through the process of adoption, giving birth to another child, and mothering both children. Throughout, there’s a deep connection to the bodily, animal self: “Plums taste the same. I just finished a deeply / purple one, spotted & bruised, / pit perfectly intact” (“Nine Months Pregnant”).
Throughout the collection, Givhan uses myth-making to narrativize emotional experiences and make them visible. The collection’s hinge, “A Crown for Headless Mama in Her 14×14 Music Box,” illustrates how society mythologizes women: “They / believe that when I heard a deer running, / I mistook it for husband, clamped myself / to its striding back while it hurried through / brambles.” However, one of the most elemental human experiences—giving birth and mothering—is conspicuously absent from our societal myths, so Givhan generates the strange, personal myths she needs. This idea—that in a landscape so inhospitable to motherhood, meaning, beauty, and belonging only result from an act of will—binds the collection together. There’s certainly darkness here, but also self-determination and a recognition that motherhood can be one of life’s most powerful creative endeavors. And Givhan passes the deep magic of myth-making to future generations when, later in the poem, her “daughter / recounts the bible stories she creates: / Jesus, eaten by a wolf, saved herself.”