Jennifer Givhan’s “I am dark, I am forest”

This summer I purchased and read the poetry collection Girl with Death Mask by author Jennifer Givhan. Givhan is a talented Mexican-American poet who often writes from her raw experiences about culture, identity, womanhood (and patriarchy), et al., and how these things have troubled and changed her speakers over time. I enjoy Givhan’s work and so I would like to look in depth at her poem “I am dark, I am forest” in order to examine its constituent parts as well as admire it as a whole.

The first thing I notice when reading this poem is that Givhan has included a subheading “After Rilke,” which means that she intends for us to understand that Rilke has influenced this work and perhaps, her poetry more generally. Rilke’s work is seen as lyrical, mystical, and existential, which sets the tone for Givhan’s poem, as we understand that she may be writing in a similar mode.

Givhan writes this poem primarily in English, but includes Spanish words such as menudo, bisabuela, cebola, chanclas, esposo, sopa, and others. The word “menudo” in particular is interesting because it is not only a Spanish word but a culturally significant Mexican soup which is made with beef stomach (tripe) and vegetables, and takes hours to prepare. Menudo is traditionally cooked over several hours and eaten as a whole family, especially on important occasions such as weddings.

As menudo is the first image the reader takes in, and recurs throughout, it seems important to informing the rest of the poem. The color red, by which menudo is characterized, is also present in this poem, when the speaker says “I wore no red” (invoking the Little Red Riding Hood myth), to “the chile-red sopa the blood-water broth.” The use of the color red seems to be hinting towards blood throughout the poem because of violent under- (and over-) tones, and finally in these last lines the word is spelled out. The poem makes use of the Little Red Riding Hood story, well known among many audiences, to undermine it and say, in some way, while I was carrying food through the woods for my grandmother, this is a much darker story.

Violence in the poem is first hinted when the speaker says “I carried my bisabuela’s tripas not daring ask whose intestines I carried” and then in the words “chopped fine” in the next line, causing the reader to question if someone is in danger. It becomes clearer over the next several lines that the speaker’s bisabuela has been put in many violent situations, from being forced to sew commercial clothing, to having fire in her home, to being forced to sell her home in exchange for Medicare benefits.

This story is not just one that rewrites Little Red Riding Hood, but also one that speaks of inheritance. The speaker does not just witness the violence heaped upon her bisabuela but also is forced to carry it herself: “I carried the sewing machine…I carried the forest crackling against asphalt where her chanclas burnt & melted so I carried her too…I carried her sugarwater / a hummingbird great-granddaughter.” This culminates in what feels like the heaviest thing this great-granddaughter has to carry–the abuse of her great-grandfather on her mother, which she says she “carried those wounds through the womb.” And yet, as a hummingbird granddaughter, the speaker is forced to reconcile these things somehow, to make carrying their weight seem easier than it is.

The poem’s last line seems to bring illumination to the rest of the poem: “I carried darkness into the forest & sliced it out.” In the title, the speaker admits that she is “dark,” she is “forest,” which further adds to our knowledge about how she has taken on these inheritances from her family. Only the words “sliced it out” at the very ending of the poem offer some hope that the speaker has removed some of these burdens from herself, albeit, this “slicing” seems that it had to have been a terrible violence in and of itself.

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