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Categories Poetry

The Shape of the Keyhole

Publication Date: November 2020


In 1650 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a woman was hanged for “bewitching to death” her friend’s child.

The single, and remarkably brief, historical account includes this accusation by the child’s nurse: “She did make much of the child, and then the child was well, but quickly changed its color and dyed in a few hours.”

Almost immediately after the woman was hanged—denying her guilt to the end—it was discovered that the child died because the nurse brought him with her into the woods in the freezing cold so she could be with her secret lover.


This stunning book-length poem creates, from a brief account in colonial American history, an expansive collage of “dislodged sentiment, fragmented scenes, churned-up voices.” Denise Bergman renders the arrest, trial, and execution of a falsely accused woman in cinematic slow motion and spare lyrical language, heightened by recurrent metaphor and contrapuntal wordplay. A rush of voices speeds up the motion before the final scene, inviting questions of guilt and culpability that are disturbingly relevant to the injustices of our own time. 
—Martha Collins

Denise Bergman’s compelling new collection, The Shape of the Keyhole, gives testimony to prejudices, false rumors, mutable scraps of damning evidence that wrongly condemn a woman to die by hanging. Here there is no restorative justice, only questions that singe through to a hushed past: “Why does no one ask why//she killed a child/would want to kill/ a child/that child//could she not stop herself.” In a style reminiscent of cubism and Stein, Bergman’s fractured, repetitive language and succinct imagery recreate a sequence of voicings that imprint indelibly on the consciousness of the reader where “Silence snatches the best view of the finish line.” The Shape of the Keyhole shines a clarifying light into the dark, unsparing nature of humanity. 
—Dzvinia Orlowsky

About the Author

Denise Bergman

Denise Bergman's poetry collection Three Hands None was published by Black Lawrence Press in March 2019.  A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea won the Patricia Clark Smith Poetry Prize and was published by West End Press in 2014. The book centers on the making and endurance of “symbol” in the Statue of Liberty; the impetus for the book was the year when the statue sat in 350 pieces in 214 crates on its future island home awaiting reconstruction. The Telling (Cervena Barva, 2014) is a book-length poem generated by a relative's one-sentence secret: she believed that as a child refugee she had accidentally killed her mother. Seeing Annie Sullivan (poetry, Cedar Hill Books) based on the early life of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was translated into Braille and a Talking Book. Denise conceived and edited the anthology of urban poetry City River of Voices (West End Press). Her poetry is widely published, most recently in Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Solstice, Paterson Literary Review, and the Syracuse Cultural Workers Women’s Daybook. The first stanza of her poem “Red,” about a neighborhood near a slaughterhouse, is permanently installed in a public park in Cambridge, Mass.

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