by Heather Treseler
Southword Editions, 2020
Heather Treseler’s new chapbook Parturition, named after the technical term for childbirth, is punctuated with medical vocabulary. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. Caul, a baby born with a piece of amniotic sac on its head. Nullipara, a woman who has never given birth. Treseler’s speaker is herself a nullipara, with little interest in changing that. She has been failed by how the “telos of girlhood” is defined by “reproducibility ” — which is to say, the way that the chapters of a woman’s story are mapped out by her reproductive status.
But fruit-bearing trees, Treseler writes, “aren’t the only arbors required / to sustain life as we have known it,” challenging us to conceive of womanhood’s value beyond what can be consumed by our “ravenous mouth[s].” Parturition illuminates not only how women’s lives are governed by biological reproduction, but also by intertwining rhetorical and psychological modes of reproduction. The medical lexicon underscores a compulsive categorization and anatomization of the body. It’s a violent force that Treseler’s speaker can’t help but reproduce towards strangers and loved ones alike — “in a dark naming of parts as if my lover were a getaway / horse” — even as she tries to push back against its harm.
Parturition is a chapbook as compressed as a diamond. Its poems talk backwards and forwards and sidewards with the others, drawing on a set of close-knit images that Treseler mines again and again, excavating their depths. The first poem of the chapbook, “Louisiana Requiem,” features a description of motherhood as
inexhaustible as water, a song of warmth and warning
a map for the body politic, a long cobbled road, umbilical
built to outlast wreck and ruin, the dearth of empire.
Treseler takes each of these images — water, anatomy, geography, empire — and masterfully refracts them throughout the twelve poems. Water becomes seabirds become fishermen in Maine living by tides (and suggests, in turn, a body’s tides). The “map for the body” is deepened by the speaker’s disclosure of an old eating disorder, which lurks in the corners of the poems, casting its dark shadow on mentions of food or appetite. A “long cobbled road” plays on both the Appian Way and St. Louis’s Kingshighway, creating a continuity of suffering from ancient times to today.
The heart of Parturition is “The Lucie Odes,” a ten-part apostrophic poem for the speaker’s late friend Lucie Nell Beaudet. But “friend” seems like a wholly inadequate terms for the love these two women shared, which slipped between platonic, erotic, maternal, and back again. “To love another woman as if the self,” the speaker declares, then two stanzas later revises herself, “To love another woman, as much as the self.” The distinction between the two remains problematic for the speaker, who often yearns to find in Lucie a double for herself — made impossible by so many things, not least of which is Lucie’s tragic death at 58.
In life, Lucie was fiercely independent, and instructed the speaker “to live with nothing hid or hindered, halved, / withheld.” Treseler’s frequent use of alliteration and wordplay throughout these poems belies the impossibility of the double. Although sounds may repeat, they repeat imperfectly, fundamentally altered by their contextual or temporal differences.
The back half of Parturition traces the arc of the speaker’s grief, wherein she learns to make peace with being unhindered and unhalved from Lucie. In “Anhedonia,” Treseler captures precisely one of grief’s cruelest ironies: how it can dull all bodily hunger while simultaneously sharpening an emotional hunger for the deceased.
When the speaker’s appetite comes back to her, the old cravings for touch and for tenderness are still there. But grief, Treseler suggests, can teach us to be resourceful, to find fullness in places that used to leave us wanting more. At the close of the chapbook, the speaker observes this newfound ability in herself:
For the first time, when you fell
back, sated, you didn’t need to ask what he was thinking,
you didn’t ransack the shelves for some abiding crumb
to feed lingering hunger; you had, for once, satisfied
what took you past girlhood’s parish and garden gate,
granting exile permission and village, citizen and state. In just 28 short pages, Treseler has crafted a narrative as complex and rewarding as that of a much longer work. She provides no easy answers for what womanhood could or should look like beyond our ravenous mouths. Instead, her poems and her speaker alike face head-on the full uncertainties of the world — of history, of motherhood, of geography, of embodied existence. With elegance and precision, Parturition takes exactly what it needs to satisfy its own hungers, and leaves the rest behind.