Bite Marks, by Heidi Seaborn
Winner of The Comstock Review Chapbook Award, 2020
Review by Deborah Bacharach, Christine Dooley Ellis,
Geri Mendoza Gutwein, and Olivia Loftis
Heidi Seaborn wrote poetry as a teenager, stopped after college, and then came back to it just where Bite Marks is set, in mid-life where, as she writes in “In Menopause I Lose My Sense of Direction,” it’s “Such a muddle this middle this road failing to fork or cloverleaf.” The speaker may feel lost, but Seaborn has been rushing forward with two full-length collections and three chapbooks, this one winning The 2020 Comstock Review Chapbook Award. In Bite Marks, Seaborn is not afraid to plunge straight into the taboo, whether it is menopause, women’s relationship to their beauty, or death looming, and she does so with a delightful cheekiness.
Many taboo subjects get air time in these poems—vaginas, affairs with married men, violence against women—but Seaborn focuses in on menopause. “That was menopause the butcher said” begins the first untitled poem. It’s a forced menopause brought on by a hysterectomy, and clearly the word choice “butcher” instead of “surgeon” lets the reader know the speaker feels attacked and dehumanized.
Seaborn returns in several poems to the dehumanization surrounding menopause and how it ties to women losing their beauty. In “In the Mirror” she writes:
I blanket my body
in bedclothes, in the tall
meadow grass. Come look!
I’ve already disappeared.
The speaker who flaunted her gorgeous body as a young person, now, post-menopause, hides herself. Seaborn provides a double meaning: the speaker both protects herself and yet internalizes what happens to women as they age—they disappear. Meadow grass is alive, so this is not a condemnation of wrapping up; more so, it’s an acceptance. The speaker provides some beneficence to herself in the softness, but ironically, she is still juxtaposing this body in a blanket with the body in a bikini, earlier. She recognizes that she has internalized becoming a disappeared one. Her work speaks to our impermanence.
These poems look at impermanence, our impending death, with a sense of hopelessness and wonder. They remind us “we all grow long and tired” (“Cresting Bone”) and that we are as perishable as a radish (“The Perishable Nature of a French Breakfast Radish”).
In a poem titled “To Do Before You Die,” the speaker is riding a bike up a mountain:
where deer nibble long grass where now I climb slowly
asking nothing of the trees or of this dog day in August
but everything of me
pedaling Mt. Constitution 2399′
to its peak where I arrive thirsty for the glittering expanse
of the Salish Sea and hungry for the knuckle ride down.
The poem is rich with detail of the natural world “where deer nibble long grass,” so the first thing the speaker is telling us to do before we die is notice the world around us. The tone also tells us to approach death full of confidence and joy, “hungry for the knuckle ride down.”
Seaborn captures the tonal range of late mid-life. From great confidence, like above, to the heartbroken, like when the speaker carries “severed / lilacs by the armful / as if an injured / child” (“The Neighbors Request a Tree Removal”), to the intimate “I need to sound you, know / your fathoms. Know we’re truly sisters” (in, “I’m in Conversation with the Sea”), to the most surprising and delightful—cheeky self-mocking. When the speaker says, “Recently I asked my oldest son and his wife about baby names. / They are not pregnant,” I laughed out loud. I appreciate how much fun Seaborn has making fun of herself. In “When the Stars Align,” she writes:
In my dreams, I am leaping off
a star and then I’m a starfish sparkling in a turquoise sea—
a celestial cleansing for a woman
who just wanted to have sex most of the time.
Skirt hiked over my hips. My ass, mooning the universe.
The poem integrates three tones: the dreamy, lovely lyric with the gentle floating imagery of a starfish in a turquoise sea—so perfect as to be almost too much; the blunt frankness of “just wanted to have sex most of the time,” a voice that calmly wades into the taboo; and then the delightful self-mocking of a speaker who sees herself now not as that dreamy starfish but as the ridiculous, the mooning ass. As Seaborn takes on menopause and women enjoying their beauty, she brings the reader with her with this wink and a nod at her fallibility.
Heidi Seaborn is the author of [PANK] 2020 Poetry Award winner An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe (2021), Give a Girl Chaos (C&R Press/Mastodon Books, 2019) as well as chapbooks, Finding My Way Home and Once a Diva. Her work has recently appeared in American Poetry Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Copper Nickel. She is Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal. www.heidiseabornpoet.com.
Reviewers’ Note: This review was written collaboratively by the International Women’s Writing Guild book review course, taught by Deborah Bacharach, Spring 2022. I picked Bite Marks for our class project because I have reviewed Seaborn’s two full-length collections and expected this chapbook to be just as fulfilling in theme, structure, and craft. Seaborn was kind enough to donate electronic copies of her book to our class.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake & Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). Her poems, book reviews and essays have been published in Poetry Ireland Review, New Letters and Poet Lore among others. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com
Olivia Loftis studied Writing, Literature, & Publishing at Emerson College. They appreciate the value that a strong author-editor relationship brings to the creative process. Olivia enjoys live music, trying new recipes, visiting local landmarks with friends, and doing their best not to fall off their Chicago Manual of Style–branded skateboard.
Christine Dooley Ellis is a writer living in South County, Rhode Island, lands of the Narragansett. She writes with Grace Farrell’s Writing on Ninigret Pond and is a Muse and the Marketplace Literary Idol finalist.
Geri Mendoza Gutwein, Ph.D., professor emerita of English at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College taught English, creative writing, and Native American Literature there for many years. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the author of three chapbooks of poetry: Every Orbit of the Circle, The Story She Told, and An Utterance of Small Truths.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.