- Wandering Their Own Deserts
The University of Arizona Press
84 Pages; Print, $16.95
Jennifer Givhan's newest collection of poetry, Rosa's Einstein, reimagines Latinx identity through the unlikely lens of fairytales and physics. Givhan's poems take the reader on an epic journey following two sisters, Rosa and Nieve, as they traverse the desert borderlands of New Mexico. Along the way they encounter ghosts of the past, both personal and societal, as they reevaluate and reconceptualize border, identity, and border narratives. Characters move across time and space to confront trauma, heal, and celebrate a new sense of self. Givhan invokes Lieserl, the "lost" daughter that Albert Einstein abandoned, in order to reimagine the possibilities of sisterhood and connection. And yet, Givhan's writing is also very specific to her Latinx identity, even while borrowing from the experiences of three separate characters as they bond over a search for their absent fathers. The poems interweave Latinx culture, folklore, religion, circus-like aesthetics, and quantum physics to create a rich tapestry of storytelling. The collection as a whole explores the limitations and possibilities of faith and science alongside personal and cultural trauma.
Throughout the collection, Givhan makes explicit and subtle references to her roots as a Mexican American woman growing up in Imperial Valley, a small border community in the Southern California desert. However, Givhan is invested in reconceptualizing experience beyond her individual heritage. Instead, the poems of Rosa's Einstein speak to all women stuck in that liminal space between two cultures and dealing with the historic and personal pain of the past and a desire to belong: those "hijas wandering their own deserts," as she indicates on her dedication page to the collection. And, as the first poem in the collection establishes, these stories are deeply personal, "braiding history with myth," a detail emphasized by the character's revised names of Rosa Roja and Nieve taking the place of folklore's famous Rose Red and Snow White, respectively. When the author declares "(This isn't a fairytale, though we imagine ourselves / unraveling)," we understand these parentheses to undermine the form through which this "unraveling" is taking place—those archetypal stories that at once tether us to a past outside ourselves but at the same time are interwoven in our understanding of personal identity. The reader is asked to "unravel" these stories and join the heroine in her journey of rebuilding identity. In this first poem when Rosa urges Lieserl "Come / sister. I'll give you flight," she is entreating those wandering hijas reading her work as well.
Givhan's collection is epic in scope while simultaneously whimsical, somber, and intimate. Her writing, while consciously manipulating time and space, remains impressively grounded in science and memory. In this way the collection becomes a story of reclamation—a space to unburden the mind and remap one's own story while directly speaking to cultural narratives. The writing moves from poem to poem at a quick pace, but this fluidity binds the poems together and draws attention to the project of unraveling that both shapes the patterns of these stories and makes their conceptualization so dynamic.
Poems like "In the Desert Multiverse; Einstein's Single Mama" demonstrate this stretching of time and blending of people and places. In short, broken stanzas, she imagines she "rebirthed Albert," and "I taught him to dance cumbias / but never to catch / butterflies on their way // to Mexico neither for beauty / nor study." The playful writing cleverly explores a dichotomy between science and faith that emerges in different versions throughout the collection. In these lines in particular, the break in stanzas emphasizes the migration of the butterflies regardless of the utility science so often serves, an allusion to the painfully removed or callous attitudes towards humans crossing borders. Others, like "Lieserl Reads Goodnight Moon" start to show the breakdown between these different characters as the poet repeats "I like to think" before each stanza, emulating Einstein's real quote "I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it," while the poet...