Karaoke Night at the Asylum

Jennifer Givhan

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.

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. 

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 

The Dying Girl & The Date Palm

Come find me under the black persimmon tree    Mama
where prayers bear wrinkled fruit     bear messages home

Come tend me at sunrise    like sweeping
a grave    offering fresh tortillas

rolled each morning    menudo steaming on the stove   
My patch of yellowing in the grass    my lungs culling holes

in the sweet so close to my palms I can nearly grasp    
What does a mouth hold but secrets     What tongue in mine

What bone-handled crotch & tissue paper wadded to staunch
the bleeding     The boy on the bicycle called my name    pulled

it from my mouth like meat from the seed &
his older brother with a truck     A hole in the floorboard   

A hole in the world    
                                       Persimmons call themselves stories

of the gods     Mama    did you also wake into the mythical  
I mean    raise yourself    hold the cast of yourself  

bones splitting as moonstones    as midnight    undone   
Leaves fall across my eyes     Mama     come find me before I bloom