Drawing Out a Spell: a Review (with Erasure) of Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell
by José Angel Araguz
Protection spells typically deal with force and looking out for one’s self and others, two themes consistently at work in Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell. Whether it is standing one’s ground regarding family, as in the sequence of poems dealing with a neighbor’s racially-charged accusations against the speaker’s husband, or empathizing with and speaking in the voices of figures past and present who have survived physical and cultural violence, the poems in this collection are alive with the complexity of wanting to protect while needing to be protected as well. These are poems that engage human experience beyond the binary of aggression and passivity, and reflect a world where the two sides blur.
In “English 20: Developmental Writing,” for example, the speaker watches as one of her students passes around a coffer box, asking for donations for a recently deceased “sobrinito” (nephew). The speaker shares:
(even a miniature coffin costs too much).
After class, she asks for change
from her classmates and me, her teacher.
I fumble through my wallet
but find no bills, no coins, and apologize,
hoping she knows I don’t mean about the money.
I can’t tell her I came to campus today
bleeding my positive pregnancy test onto a pad.
She holds my gaze.
Maybe she doesn’t believe me about the change
but hears the heaviness in my voice.
Está bien. There’s no lesson here.
This moment is pivotal in the poem, as it is when the human awkwardness felt by the speaker-as-teacher juts against the speaker-as-mourner-herself. The social roles of teacher and student break for a moment, and what is glimpsed are two people aware of loss. When the speaker at the poem’s end says, “English is her second language. / I hear loss in her first,” it is an empathic statement; the speaker wouldn’t be able to “hear loss” without knowing how to, and wanting to, listen. In listening, the speaker allows an inner vulnerability to become compassion.
In approaching my erasure of Givhan's “The Polar Bear” (below), I tried to engage with this kind of listening. The original poem presents a meditation on human and animal violence, paralleling both sides so that the implications of survival ring through. In doing so, the speaker dwells on the complexity of what is being presented to her and her child via TV. Where the cliché has it that art imitates life, here life imitates (is) life; thus, the speaker’s insistence that “This is not an analogy.” When the boy in the poem asks “is this real?” the speaker has no answer but her own silent questioning.
Again, protection spells deal with force and looking out for one’s self and others. Performing such a spell puts one in a position of agency, but reaching for one requires vulnerability as well. This complicated duality is what I see as the heart of the poem and of the collection. With the idea of finding a “protection spell,” I focused on direct and personal language. What I learned in the process is how powerful the ice imagery is in the poem, how ice implies hardening, but also slipping. Underlying this poem meditating on human and animal violence, then, is the speaker’s yearning to understand it—for herself, her son, and the reader.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.