Poetry / Jessica Cuello
:: Dear Mother, ::
Father noted each event in his diary — followed by dashes — wine diet — doctor visit — arrival of the puppies — Your afterbirth would not come out — the doctor pulled it away in pieces — Our last meal together — — the scalloped wall — the paste of blood and what did father note down then? that you were pinioned like a bird that a tomtit sang outside the window that I didn’t hear the song because my ears were wrapped in cloth and to expel the placenta puppies suckled the milk your body meant for me — Your daughter, Mary Shelley
:: Dear January 1784, ::
She kidnapped her own sister from a terror that made a whimper Sister lip sputtered a child cry hound cry fox bark seagull shriek no sense words no sense shapes shoulder shadow on the blank wall hood cloak barrel nothing there My mother called it the other evil all women know Don’t name it Eliza lost custody of her infant daughter and the baby died shortly after Yours in 1820, M.S., Daughter of M. Wollstonecraft
From the writer
:: Account ::
These epistolary poems are written in the voice of Mary Shelley as she addresses her dead mother, the writer Mary Wollstonecraft. The poems are in the voice of a lonely daughter trying to make sense of her absent mother’s life. They speak to the awareness Shelley must have had that her birth killed her mother. After Mary Shelley’s birth, Wollstonecraft’s placenta would not come out and a doctor was sent for. The doctor pulled it out, but he infected Wollstonecraft, who died 10 days later. One of the strange details from the birth is that puppies were brought in to suckle at Wollstonecraft’s breasts and draw out her milk.
The poems also reference the terror of domestic violence. The second poem is an homage to Wollstonecraft, who frees her sister from the same kind of domestic violence.
The poems addressed to years heighten the distance between daughter and mother—in those poems, Shelley, the imagined speaker, feels more intimate with the designation of time than the mother herself. The poems believe that in the absence of her mother’s presence, Shelley might have drawn on her mother’s experience as a replacement. Yet, the creative works of daughter and mother are not enough to secure love. The poems attempt to recapture that sense of panic—of scrambling for scraps of love. There is also this sense of exile from the womb itself—the only room that is secure before the world continually expels (or threatens with violence) both women. Both mother and daughter were continually rejected by men and cast out (Wollstonecraft by the father of her child, Shelley by her father). The poems imagine the daughter’s connection to her mother’s experience and the attempt to find love via letter/via word if not via flesh. The epistolary form feels apt for unexpressed longing, for query, for love that cannot be returned.
In Dear January 1784, the line the other evil is from Wollstonecraft’s Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
Jessica Cuello’s Liar was selected by Dorianne Laux for the 2020 Barrow Street Book Prize, and her manuscript Yours, Creature is forthcoming from JackLeg Press in spring of 2022. Cuello is also the author of Hunt (The Word Works, 2017) and Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016). Cuello has been awarded The 2017 CNY Book Award, The 2016 Washington Prize, The New Letters Poetry Prize, a Saltonstall Fellowship, and The New Ohio Review Poetry Prize. She is a poetry editor at Tahoma Literary Review and teaches French in CNY.