“When I was a child, I believed God held us like a paper bag to the mouth of a panic attack.” With this line from the title poem of her second collection, Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press), Jennifer Givhan begins the difficult task of defining what it means to hold and be held, what it means to respond to anxiety as a woman, a lover, a mother. The book explores ambiguities—in terms of race, in terms of motherhood, but especially in terms of the body and the subconscious. A fierce vulnerability permeates these poems, as it permeates Givhan’s previous collection, Landscape with Headless Mama. In Protection Spell, however, Givhan offers the reader a much more visceral invocation—for grace, for resilience.
Motherhood plays a large role in this collection, which explores, with tender ambiguity, all that’s lost and found in motherhood. There is the mother’s anxiety when her child actually goes missing, and her relief when the child is home safe again (“Prayer”). But the theme expands beyond the literal. What Givhan seems to suggest is that holding and being held—a form of being “found”—is more about finding equilibrium than it is about being claimed or laying claim. It’s more about maintaining a foothold: “How I’m holding / a city like my boy / my boy to my own / siren wail” (“Protection Spell (Riot’s Eye)). This holding is complicated, in this poem and in others, by the mother’s acknowledgement of her child’s vulnerability as a young, black male.
But while mothering a child provides much of the contextual structure for this collection, Protection Spell’s primary objective is to explore the body as holding site, the literal and metaphorical locus of the spell itself. We see a new mother’s joy as reproductive health is restored to her “otherwise sac of sulfuric eggs” (“The Trial”). But metaphorically, in terms of carrying or not carrying a child, many of the poems in this collection evoke stasis and resolve. In “Ars Poetica After Baby Lyuba,” Givhan recounts a story about a baby mammoth frozen in a tundra and the image stands in for her grief: “a red scarf against a whitegrey backdrop, our thousand / words for snow, but none of them fit,” which turns to joy, when her own “untamable creature [breaks] through extinction.” There is a sense that it is not just the child that has broken through, but that the mother has also emerged, as though out of permafrost, as herself. Another foothold has been found.
Like the ice entrapping the baby mammoth, several of Givhan’s poems nod to that deep, silent space—a space concerned with subconscious, visceral perception and experience. A somatics, if you will. This space is translated poignantly in “Fernweh,” where Givhan writes as a “survivor of the world,” but one who is also detached and floating, “above lightning burning pink holes / the color of punch and stars above,” and in “The Cheerleaders,” where she writes, “the loudest to cheer / remind me still of the pinecones that’ll stay / closed with pitch until hit with fire,” and yet again in “Resfeber (Re-membering Trauma),” where she states, “The subconscious / is a shaft of broken Tamarack,” and “The subconscious is a dog” that has lost the trail, that buries things.
The baby mammoth in Givhan’s ars poetica joins, as an extinct species, two other species that belong to a frozen landscape. In “The Polar Bear,” Givhan describes watching a documentary with her son about a polar bear, an endangered mammal, fighting for survival “on an island of walruses.” The bear is hungry and desperate. The walruses are afraid and lash out. “This is not an analogy,” she writes. Then: “What I’m asking is how long will we stay / walruses, he and I?” This poem appears early in the collection and resonates throughout the rest of the book. Givhan is addressing a tension: “are we the hungry ones or the ones who are afraid?” Protection Spell is for both.
Is the invocation effective? As a way to “step [back] into life,” it is. The penultimate poem in Protection Spell is titled “Machine for Second Chances.” Givhan imagines a machine she has heard of that “makes meaning.” The body, she knows, can be sustained, in crisis, by “breathing machines and beating / machines and spinning firing synapse machines.” Still, success depends on “the stars in the body”—a body’s willingness to “fasten” itself to these life-sustaining mechanisms. To make sense of love and loss, of being held and holding—to make meaning—is the purview of a more esoteric system, belonging not to machines, but to nature and the physical world : “Here, snakes in scrub oak / rattling. Here petroglyphs.” The locus of protection, Givhan suggests, is in the wild heart’s and nature’s pugnacity, the courage to seek a foothold.