Protection Spell by Jennifer Givhan (University of Arkansas Press, March 2017)
reviewed by Heidi Czerwiec
I must admit–I’m a big fan of Jennifer Givhan’s poetry, which I discovered due to the compelling cover of her first collection Landscape with Headless Mama. I loved that book for its poetry, about the fraught project of becoming a mother: miscarriages, adoption, fertility treatments, parenting in a mixed-race family, and the hairpin turns her language takes between lush, surreal imagery and blunt fact. When I saw her second book, Miller Williams Prize finalist Protection Spell, at the recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ conference bookfair–where, again, the cover caught my eye–I had to have it.
And again, the focus is family, but from a different angle. The metaphor raised in a few key poems, and that I think serves as a rubric for the book, is “dark matter,” that theorized substance that may or may not exist but that physicists say influences the universe: “…I’m covered in stuff we call dark // matter and the energy is pulling us through / emptiness” (“Earth” 63). In Protection Spell, race and racism are the dark matter that may have been invented by scientists, but which nonetheless influence Americans’ actions. It manifests its power in this collection in how the mixed-race Latina-American poet is treated as a girl, her mixed-race marriage, the family they assemble, and their fraught interactions with each other and the world.
There are echoes of the earlier book, allusions to lost children in “The Perennials,” “English 20: Developmental Writing,” but this personal loss is set against a larger and more topical loss – mothers of color terrified for or mourning the untimely loss of their sons. In fact, the collection opens with several poems that frame this fear. A short sequence “Race in America” begins its first section “i. Domestic Adoption” with the line “No joke, black babies are cheaper—” (7) before describing the son she can’t bear losing in “Prayer”: “God, if you/ ask me to let him go, I’ll say fuck no” (10). The most stunning of these poems is the one that inspired the choice of cover image, a painting of a polar bear (dead?) curled in a culvert, and is titled “The Polar Bear.” In it, the mother and son avoid the latest news coverage of riots by watching a nature show in which climate change has forced a starving polar bear to an island of walruses,
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. (4)
This fear for her son stems from her very real fear of how black men are treated in this nation. Moving out from this point, the book circles around a central incident: her black husband is wrongfully accused of peeping on a showering white girl, and harassment and threats from the police and community force the family to move, first described in a dizzying list of conflicting details in the nightmarish poem “The Glance”:
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. (11)
Givhan possesses a terrifying capability for self-interrogation, and she reveals that, given her own history as a survivor of sexual assault, she initially believes the accusation. In a book about creating safe spaces of self-protection in a racist America, this betrayal is the ultimate threat:
The way I didn’t believe you at first
the way trauma works—
What else could I have done
but sided with the girl whose body
shamed her into silence? I mean, my body.
I mean, I know now there was no body. (“The Trial,” 28)
In order to forgive herself for this brief but looming betrayal, she confronts the assault in her past via several poems about violence against women of color around the world but mainly in Latin America and the U.S. Southwest. In particular, “Curanderisma” brings together the murdered women of Jemez, her own assault, and her buried miscarried babies in a poem that starts with girls, “Playing light as a feather stiff as a board in the backyard / after curfew with the girls we called ourselves witches” and ends with the poet admitting “I was never a murdered woman but a witch/ trying to make myself whole—” (54-5).
Givhan uses everything at her disposal – prayers, spells, dreams, mythic evocations – to keep her family safe, asserting “Imagination is an act/ of self-preservation” (“Resfeber (Re-Membering Trauma),” 38). But to return to her metaphor of dark matter, I think it’s worth noting that “matter” and “mother” have the same source word of mater, and that her love and her words form a powerful binding charm, “the dark/ matter holding us together” that ultimately is “what allowed me, through darkness, to see” (70).
Heidi Czerwiec is the author of two recent chapbooks – Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle and A Is For A-ke, The Chinese Monster – and of the forthcoming poetry collection Maternal Imagination, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.