Jennifer Givhan: Three Poems

The Rhinoceros Calf

that failed to make a strong bond with its mother
& was shipped from a Florida zoo to New Mexico’s

             (they’d struck a deal with the dairy farm for that baby
would drink thousands of gallons of cow’s milk)

that calf in the corner who doesn’t know I’m watching her
or thinking anything at all     & will remember her for years

will think of her often with her sugared substitute her dry
high desert air     & wonder why on the coast

in humidity & hurricane weather in an enclosure
like ours

                        & my children sitting beside

me on the bench where I watch   tears down my face   my
children asking why are you crying     mama     & the truth

is I don’t know     did that mother with her body
say nothing     say no     did that mother really just let go


The Girl (Whose Mother Filled Her Belly with Meth & Let Terrible People Mutilate Her Body Before Killing Her) Runs Away

for Victoria


She does not immediately want you to read her story on the front page of the newspaper at the Walgreens on Universe & Paradise where you’re refilling your living girl’s prescription & buying your girl            safe            a bottle of crystal blue electrolytes            She wants you to keep your eyes on your girl            playing hopscotch across the automatic doors opening & closing & opening            She wants you to pick up a yellow umbrella            to notice the inky splotches of sky forming behind the hills in the distance            She wants you to remember those hills are volcanoes            that they are sleeping            & sleeping things wake up


When you step into the shower that night            you admit you did look down at the counter & saw two women with their arms upraised            You thought it harmless to keep reading            You’ll never know who those women are who needed comforting            Because the caption said what it said about the mother & what she let her boyfriend do            Because you’re hyperventilating against the tile            the girl shampoos your hair & sings            Her song sounds like the one you taught her            for gathering yourself from the drain like hairs            like colorful strips of paper for the collage you’ve never stopped working on            She tells you her plan It is so smart            she is so smart            You smile as she dips your head back into the warm water and rinses the soap from your eyes            It doesn’t even sting the way she does it            She promises she will check on you while you sleep & shows you the light            She promises she will run toward it            past the ditches rusting            in the empty desert stretch behind your house            & because you didn’t write the story & because she didn’t want you to—


you believe her




My body he burned          g;lue-gunning
the papier-mâché of my breasts

to the smell of arts & crafts in the recreation room
(every room after the recovery room)

like the cumbias of my girlhood dancefloors
flailing like Pentecostal Sunday          Nothing tasted so good

as the mango con chile from the fruit stand
at the razor-edge of town          not even the lime-

squeezed beer          its smell of night-
oak shimmering in the yard          I’d climb

out my window & Danny with his brother’s truck
wasn’t the one I loved wasn’t the one

who squashed the June bugs spiraling
from my navel          my collarbones          the peach-

fuzzed skin of my newly-shaped breasts
(girls in alleyways          if you survived dumpster-

diving          you survived anything)


A mother lost her children
to her ex-husband          her children with bruises

on their thighs          in the apricot-soft
within their elbows          photographs the judge ruled

circumstantial or unprovable          the wife could not prove
I’m wrecked for a system failing to protect what we love

          When I say wrecked I mean the razorblade
I stole when I was fifteen from the hardware store

pressed to my wrists like cat claws
I told my mom were the neighbor’s cat’s

Mom          she’s wild          she’s untamable          that fat tabby
(I don’t mean wrecked for the women but

unmothered things)


My ex’s nana had a stroke
& my ex-nuera Sally told me she asks for me time to time

my ex-railyard familia          barbacoa & soaking beans
like I’m never drunk in the grass anymore          wailing

like that alley tabby I’ve never stopped
needing—she lies in bed

between my husband & me          stomach pressed
to sheets & waiting          hollowed calavera

en día de los muertos          marigolds
laid on the altar of her belly button

though now she could be my ex’s daughter
at her Quinceañera in white          like a mother in the news

who measured her daughter’s growth through
years pressed in a wedding dress          from the time

she was a baby          God she was too young


& fifteen was a good year for me—
In the desert time of Valley ache          in that wide bowl

of my hips          bone dry asparagus fields crackling
heatwave where I’m still burying placenta          fat as hearts

& beating back border roots with my fists
(I told the girl who said this poem is her one

chance          the doors will shut          love          in your face          love—
knock them down          climb the fucking fire

escape) year I first learned to light myself
on fire          call the firetruck of my own

body          that holiest of waters

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