Girl With Death Mask, a collection of sometimes searing, sometimes fantastical, always transcendent poems by Jennifer Givhan, is the winner of the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize. The annual prize is offered by IU Press and Indiana Review, a 39-year-old literary magazine edited by Indiana University graduate students. First awarded in 2016, the Blue Light Books Prize alternately commemorates short story and poetry collections, with winners receiving a publication contract and a $2,000 monetary award.

Ross Gay, the much-lauded poet who directs IU’s creative writing program, was the judge of this year’s contest. In the award announcement, Gay commended Givhan’s poems for inventing a new world: “A world haunted and brutal, yes. But one mended, too, by the love and tenderness and vision and magic by which these poems are made.”

Courtesy photo

Givhan, a Mexican American poet who grew up in the desert of the Southwest, was a runner-up for the 2015 prize. She told Indiana Review at the time that she would never tire of writing about “mother/child relationships and that kind of sticky love that keeps us hanging on when we’ve no other reason but love.”

This new collection proves her continued preoccupation with sticky relationships. Her poetry is not only about motherhood, but about the terrors and joys of girlhood and womanhood. The poems concern suicide, miscarriage, rape, child abuse, and abortion—but also celebrate first love, teenage independence, traditional Mexican dishes, and the natural world. It is thus not surprising that her poems would appeal to Gay, whose last poetry collection was titled the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

Givhan, too, is grateful for such gifts as Oaxaca-style molé, with its sauce of “tongue-burnt dark chocolate,” and the “wrinkled fruit” of black persimmon trees.

Her blank verse has a pleasing shape on the page. She generally dispenses with punctuation and lets white space create the pauses. The last lines of her poems never end with a closing period, signifying her restless, questing spirit. She will always keep believing, then doubting, then formulating new faiths.

In one poem, she reveals her keen sorrow at the news that a French scientist has proven that the alleged remains of Givhan’s idol Joan of Arc are actually those of a mummy. In another, she wails, “Mama / Your Jesus failed me.” And yet she and the women in her poems are often able to rise again, to discover new loves and new strengths. In one poem, she proclaims “though they thought / I was fly in a web / I was web.”

Despite the ugliness, failures, and sorrows her poems touch upon, they often end with affirmations: “If limbs are made of splintered oars / & hearts of apple blossoms / this world’s for me.”


As a Bloom Magazine web exclusive, here is a selection of four of Jennifer Givhan’s poems from Girl With Death Mask.


From the apartment shadowing our university’s

arboretum       evergreens taller

than the freeway overpass        a girl

we’d crossed in the quad        those orange trees

squat & bright from which we picked

a fruit each & peeled them on the walk back

to our one-bedroom        pulp in our teeth       that girl

jumped        She might have floated

I cut off my hair & you hid

the knives for days        the bathtub stopper        the cords

You told me you were a time traveler

on borrowed time        In bed after my diagnosis

& the voices        & the voices I could not

quiet        you told me you’d come back

to save me & I threw my wedding

ring out the window        I didn’t

need saving        & when we climbed

downstairs you dove into the pool

& emerged from the water like a dolphin

meant to fetch gold bands from the deep

For my slit skin you pricked

your own        called us blood buddies

& when the babies started bleeding

down my legs you bought me a doll

from the doll hospital I’d told you

I loved as a kid        She came with a birth

certificate & blue eyes        Her name was Susan

I threw her at you        hurled profanities

How could you have been so cruel

You were not cruel        You were a time

traveler        We are years later         sunset

turning the mountains behind our balcony

watermelon        cotton candy        pink elephant

I am alive I am alive I am

You’d seen your own death        She was a girl

like me        She was falling        She was flying


When I Am Not Joan of Arc or You Bring Me a Bowl of Green & Purple Olives

I am made for our own goddamn kitchen

I’ve wrecked us &

cannot light the stove        pilot out

& clicking        box of casino matches

my hands juddering        Sometimes you carry

watermelon        not gently         not

to protect it        not like a baby         & when

you slice I’m aware of the tattoo

you’ve sharpied on your forearm        numbers

of blood sugar levels        correct doses

of Clozapine & patient names

I need this care        the candles you light

my hair caught in the flame        remember

our first unholy apartment

we watched         another girl like me

learning to fly        We thought

she was learning to fall

That ledge        remember        My novice hope

in tarot        my resolve        in history        in 1867

a French pharmacist claiming

five stoppered bottles contained

the charred bones of my teenage saint        remains

of my maiden        You held

my hands as the Catholic church accepted

but the bottles were misplaced

they were shelved        until a forensic scientist

unpinned them from legend

& tested their promise        If I were

the scientist with my white coat & clipboard

I would have done the same

You’ve assured me I’ve ruined myself

with a need for proof        A human rib        a small

leg bone       not human       Lord        the cat’s broken

femur tarred black        The bones couldn’t have been

merely burned        The scientist found

bitumen        pinewood resin        gypsum

Embalming        They were mummy bones

Not my sainted girl

schizophrenic heroine        but a hoax

I nearly cried when I heard this

Remember        You had to stop me

from excavating my own bones

I wasn’t always a nonbeliever        Remember

how I wanted the bones

to belong        to the dead girl


The Change

When I was still small I began growing antlers

as a stag grows antlers        as a girl grows

breasts        My chest remained flat & the blood

didn’t come        but the velvet skin

sprang spongy behind my temples        No one at school

laughed at the antlers like they did when I’d grown

hair under my arms & razor-scraped my shins

to the blood-bright thrill of the locked bathroom door

Mom said she would’ve given me warm

water & lotion        if I’d let her in        The girls asked could I

pierce my antlers like ears or a nose        & if they

hurt        The boys asked were they strong enough

to break glass        crush tin cans        & how long

would they grow        The doctor

said to stick out my tongue & drink

peach tea from a soda fountain in the nurse’s

lounge so I could pee in a cup & prove

myself        Sometimes a female deer grows

a stub        He asked if there was any chance I could be

growing something else        I told Mom

there was a boy but it didn’t mean anything

I couldn’t even use a tampon yet

Soon small red birds gathered & settled

as the velvet turned to bone       matured into branches

They were too heavy & I knew I had a choice

Mom scoured every myth        required

every curandera crack eggs

over my belly        rub sagebrush across

my forehead       chant & pray        One even told me

to sing        I could learn to love my antlers        or I could

wait        see if they fell off on their own        see how long

would they stay gone


On Contemplating Leaving My Children


I’ve hesitated beside the bosque        deep in the cottonwood

told them I will not        not again

What sovereign lies        What queen in her epistolary cage

An ochre shot glass empties

a lantern        unlit        heedlessly shines

In vain I have opened mirrors & edges of mirrors


A blanket ripped during sleep        a dream turns

cold & the body knows

something is wrong        Wake up        Wake up!

Traveling flatland        winter branches praising a slate of sky

I have passed a shotgunned doe

& known        bloodred        the dying in me

would fight back        hunter try her might


The church nearby         the snow is piled high        Something


in the distance        I tread carefully


Once        I fell into a river but wouldn’t drown

If limbs are made of splintered oars

& hearts of apple blossoms

this world’s for me