Jennifer Givhan’s Lifeline opens with a strong voice in the first poem, “Reupholstering a Chair,” that urges one to “look up from the base of your life.” This perspective continues to play a central role in all the poems in this chapbook; the voice remains strong throughout each piece, even (or especially) those that deal with difficult subjects of loss, shame, violence, love, and death. With the final poem, “Machine for Second Chances,” there is hope in a “machine that makes / meaning, like stardust,” and strength to navigate “the footholds steep / & the footholds careless,” as “we step into our lives.”
Givhan’s poems show, and then tell, what she means or what she takes away from a memory or incident and what it all means in a larger sense. In “Earth” she speaks to the earth as “you” and ends with the inclusive “us,” everything becoming one with one purpose. Repetition homes in on words used for different purposes, such as her use of “nails” and “dark,” and is a skillful tool in this poem in which the speaker refers to the weight of the world:
I’ve felt Atlas carrying you
the way I’ve carried
love, the way I’ve carried my dead
& buried them back to you, inchworms
in the grass. I mean we’re in the dark
here. I mean I’m holding us.
The poem transitions from the “I” to the “we” seamlessly and with careful thought; the reader follows along on the journey.
A number of Givhan’s poems share an almost brutal, raw, linguistic shredding of emotions. Her trio of sonnets, “3-Card Spread” is one example of her use of piercing language:
The last time I had a dick in my mouth I was dying
alfalfa withered in rows unable to separate desire
The speaker in this third of the three sonnets asks, “Do you take your body wherever you go?” The answer in this and elsewhere in this book is an emphatic yes; the poems focus so much on the body and what one goes through in a single life that requires poetry to somehow connect and yet simultaneously disengage. The writing feels necessarily therapeutic while revealing craft, skill, and art. Another poem, “Chassis,” marries form and function to produce a poem of staggering weight. Givhan’s use of precise language constructs profound images that remain indelible. The body, again, the setting, and the language in this, as in every poem, strikingly managed:
Into the dark body I went into
wells gurgling the way syrup in a wound
& gauze someone tender
o syringe o bloodletting
no I insist it was necessary
Jennifer Givhan is a poet who has received numerous well-deserved awards and accolades for her work. Lifeline is inspiration for reading her other chapbooks and collections. Her deft use of linguistic nuance creates stories in the poems throughout the chapbook and etches the images onto imaginary glass so that the words don’t dissipate too soon.