Two Poems

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.