Chicken-Hearted

“It’s time you learn to scrub a chicken.”
    Mama rarely cooked after working all day—her heart wasn’t in it.
But a daughter should know how to sterilize

that pink, ominous cavern before she flew
    away to salt her own kitchens: pry its legs apart
& reach inside to scoop as if the bird was pregnant.

When I moved out that winter, pregnant
    & fat like nobody’s business but still too chicken to tell
Mama, I took up with a boy who tore apart

our piss cold apartment looking for the piece of his heart he
    swore I’d eaten. He claimed it flew
into my belly & before I gave it back, I’d need to sterilize

it. So I ran around that damn flat with wipes to sterilize every
    counter & crevice. Not only was I pregnant &
compulsive, but news had spread that flu

had reached pandemic level—this time from swine not chickens.
    I’d read that pregnant women were more susceptible to heart failure.
I figured that also meant the tiny throbbing pink part

in my belly. I never studied anatomy, apart
    from an odd encounter with a college boy who tried to sterilize my body
with his tongue. It didn’t work but left heart-

shaped scars along my chest & thighs, each mark pregnant with
    blood, a strawberry patch or the red wattle of a chicken.
I’d begun to waddle around in baggy sweats a few

weeks since seeing Mama. She’d suspected the “more than a few
    pounds” I’d gained, flinging accusations, shredding me apart
for acting the slut I was. I’d heard it before—she’d squawk chicken

shrills until I broke down. She’d peck at me to sterilize
    my body like the kitchen, the chicken, my own pink pregnant belly
ache. She’d have had me scoop out my own heart

to make a point. I don’t think I could live without a heart.
    I’d lived without anyone but Mama since the summer we flew over
the Grand Canyon away from dad. Mama was pregnant

then. That didn’t last long. I was eleven when she clawed apart the
    bathroom, not the kitchen, scrubbing the tub to sterilize
it for a bath, I’d guessed. I’d have asked but was too chicken.

The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart to
    sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleansers or flu
or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.

More by Jennifer Givhan

Self-Defense or What I Wish Mama Had Taught Me

              for My Daughter
 

Your body can unzip 

like a boned bodice. 
 

Your body is a knife— 

both slicing point 
 

& handle.  Your body is the diamond 
 

blade arm 

but the bleeding is not yours.  
 

On the ground at your feet 

your body is becoming rocks.  
 

Heat-baked by centuries into basalt,

canyons of you, black-mouthed & sharp-edged. 
 

Lift the largest rock 

of yourself and throw 
 

with all the rocks in your gut.


Ghost the mother of your gut—she birthed you 

for rocks. 


In the ghost story, a woman goes to hell 

for a man who’d unravel her. 


Use the hell

of your body, 


unravel for no one but yourself. 

Karaoke Night at the Asylum

When I was eleven, Mama sang karaoke
at the asylum. For family night, she’d chosen

Billie Holiday, & while she sang, my brother, a
fretted possum, clung

to me near the punch bowl. I remember her
then, already coffin-legged—

mustard grease on her plain dress,
the cattails of her hair thwapping along

with the beat. The balding headstones of the
others—quarantined

from their own mothers & sisters & daughters—
I wondered if they, like us, were strange

alloys of sadness & forgetting
the words to the songs. I was a grave-

digger then. A rat fleeing ship.  Mama,
who hadn’t sung to me since I was a baby &

never would again, was the lynchpin— I’m still
turning & turning the screw.

Warn the Young Ones

First war       She polishes the spine of her own
flesh       Tethered nerve      strangling cord       She

burial mounds       She rituals       She
corn stalks in rustling fields       Nothing tribe

nothing sex       Rock for riverbed       Notched
with flint       Second war       She needs less       Sequoia

burns       Cities       In her body      wrappings
of bodies       She debates running       She debates peeling

skin       She stops debating      begins praying without
knees       Not for rain       Prays rain       Holy nothing

unlaces nothing remembered nothing
forgiven—          Come others       Third war      

She is a void in the particle machine       She is dust     
Fourth war she loses the need for water       She loses

all taste       Rain brings each earthwormed corpse       Nothing
ugly       Turn not       Her face from the dead       She

resurgence       She fable of bee boxes
& honey       She ark of some lost territory

of animals       She zebras       She aardvarks      
She dredges the flooded streets of her      the gutters    

Fifth war       She grows stronger       All that can be
taken she takes       All that can be eaten

she swallows       All that can be broken she
pulls into her belly & releases       Nothing is whole     

Sixth war       She loses her appetite       Her bones brittle     
The cabbage in the broth bitters       She

pulls from ribcages       Hearts       Uses them
as weapons       Seventh war       The cord she began with      

Nothing like a noose       She would rest       Longs for nothing
but rest       Each threaded backbone slips its knot       Nothing

transforms       She wants to tell you this is the end       She wants