Heather Treseler’s poems are as full of closely observed, telling detail as realist prose fiction. They tell vivid stories about the constraining norms of class and gender. They also evoke the potential for escaping or transforming those constraints by putting it “all on the line.” The phrase suggests risk, intensity, self-exposure, and honesty. It is also a punning way to speak of the writing of poetry.

In “Cul-de-Sac,” Treseler’s narrator remembers growing up on a comfortable street with no outlet, a dead end where the squat houses met in a circle, eyeing one another, “envious” of this one’s paint job or that one’s carport. Her father made sure the lawn was trimmed the way his barber cut his hair—“boy’s short, regular”—while her mother dusted “porcelain figurines and never-used, quaintly / painted China plates.” Their cul-de-sac made the adults feel privileged. But the little girl, racing her scooter round and round in the boring safety of “the prescribed circle,” sensed a trap. She was clever enough to learn that cul-de-sac means “bottom of the sack,” the bag in which “a sickly child” or pet might be quietly disposed of. She would make sure she got out.

Treseler finds a precedent for feelings of domestic entrapment, as well as a model of liberation through female solidarity and creativity, in the friendship between Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. The two women were mothers and housewives when they met in a poetry-writing workshop. Kumin, the speaker in Treseler’s poem “Wire,” recalls the “private line” she and Sexton set up so that they could read their poems to each other. Turning away from their husbands and children for a moment, claiming “a petty theft from / the ordinary” to make “stories of our lives,” the poets “fed each // other” with words, as if each were both mother and infant to the other. They “learned to put it all on the line”—the phrase in this case suggesting the telephone, their poetry, and their intimate bond.

Or think of it as a lifeline, the fragility of which is expressed by Treseler’s choice to have Kumin speak the poem, rather than Sexton, who died by suicide in 1974. Kumin and Sexton had been friends for 17 years. Over the 40 years Kumin survived Sexton, she wrote 11 poems addressed to her missing friend, in various moods. Now Treseler has written one more, honoring both women and the line between them.

Compare “Wire” with “Nocturne,” another poem about female friendship and women’s life choices. Treseler and the friend she addresses were once “shy, bookish // tomboys drunk on possibility,” “stumbling out” of a college library at dawn, “dazed by the rawness of light.” Now one has given up her career as a scientist to raise two girls, while Treseler’s narrator has become a writer who, without children, wonders “if I have lived too // much for myself.”

And what lives lie before the friend’s young girls, those two sisters? The precariousness of not only their future but of anyone’s in the era of climate change is suggested by Annie’s need to master “What to Do in Your Natural Disaster.” But Treseler leaves us with an image of the girls reveling still in their youth, freedom, and sisterhood as they execute “haphazard cartwheels in the grass, downy legs milling air, // long hair grazing ground.”

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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