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Denise Bergman's new poetry collection focuses on a woman wrongly hanged in 1650 Cambridge.
Denise Bergman's new poetry collection focuses on a woman wrongly hanged in 1650 Cambridge.Sarah Boyer (Custom credit)

Verses of the accused

In Cambridge in 1650, a woman was wrongly accused and hanged for bewitching her friend’s child to death. Shortly after her hanging, it came to light that the child froze to death because his nurse left him in the cold woods during a lover’s tryst. Such are the facts that drive Cambridge poet Denise Bergman’s taut and propulsive book-length poem “The Shape of the Keyhole” (Black Lawrence). The poem unfolds over seven days, from the accusation to the farce of the trial to the public hanging and the too-late truth. Nightmare and silence are powerful forces on the scene, and Bergman’s examinations of the different wavelengths of fear — of the woman accused, her accusers, her husband, the assorted members of the town, butcher, baker, preacher, farmer, blacksmith — is deeply perceptive: “Fear like smokehouse fire fills her loins.” It’s as physically raw as it is psychologically astute: “grape-purple eyelids / lips too cracked / to cry.” She uses slant echoing — words get repeated, altered, reformed — giving the feeling of trying to make sense of something that’s happening too fast. “Her demons / have outgrown their skins.” There is something of Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology” here, and the powerful act of giving voice to those beyond the grave. Bergman will read and discuss the book at a virtual event on Wednesday, January 6, at 7 pm through Porter Square Books. Visit portersquarebooks.com for more information and to register.

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Grants for humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded $32 million in grants to humanities projects, with over $3.1 million going to individuals and organizations in New England. In Massachusetts, projects funded range from Melissa Mueller’s book on Homer’s reception in the work of Sappho ($60k); to Traci Parker’s book on Black love as an expression of Black freedom movement ideology ($60k); to Benjamin Leeming’s translation into English of a collection of Nahuatl-language Christian sermons from the 1540s ($60k); to Elizabeth Foster’s book on West African political and religious conflicts ($55k); to Kerry Sonia’s book about ancient Israel childbirth practices ($60k); to Annette Lienau’s book on Arabic as a transregional language; to Owen Stanwood’s book on failed French settlements in 16th century Florida ($50k); to Olivia Weisser’s book on sex and disease in 17th- and 18th century London ($60k), among others. In Maine, Ann Kibbie’s book on medical treatment of pregnant woman in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries was funded ($40k). For a full list, visit neh.gov.

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Night shift novel

Ellen Cooney’s wise and warm latest novel, “One Night Two Souls Went Walking” (Coffee House) follows an unnamed 36-year-old chaplain on the night shift at a hospital. It is a book about soul, the “thing that doesn’t have words,” the realest thing in all of us that we struggle to name, but that comes flickering, shining, blazing to life. Cooney, a native of Massachusetts who now lives in midcoast Maine, asks the big questions as her narrator sits bedside to people in the deepest crux moments of their lives. “What to say when there are no words?” Her narrator has doubts, feels lonely in her family, sometimes her “brain turns traitor” and floods her with gruesome, tragic moments from her work; in other words, she is human, which makes it easier for the people she tends to, and us, to trust her. This is a quiet book, steady, gentle, present, one that grapples with the matter-of-fact here and now, and wades, with bravery and wonder, into the mysteries that make us human.

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Coming Out

Black-and-White Thinking: The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex Worldby Kevin Dutton (FSG)

My Grandmother’s Braidby Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa)

I Just Wanted To Save My Familyby Stéphan Pélissier, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (Other Press)

Pick of the Week

Abby Velasco at Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street in Boston recommends “Tender Is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses (Scribner): “I expected the message to be heavy-handedly, “Don’t eat meat. It is bad.” Well, this book pleasantly shattered my expectations. This is set in a world where a virus has diseased all animal flesh, and to fill the demand for meat, humans have resorted to consuming each other. Rather than a promotion for vegetarianism, I read this novel as gruesome commentary on justified, insane selfishness in society. Really, how far are we willing to go to get what we want? Not need. Want.”


Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.