Wonder and Truth

Pricking by Jessica Cuello. Tiger Bark Press, 2016. 73 pages. $16.95.

I.

In Jessica Cuello’s first two full-length collections of poetry, the historical past is tangible, annunciative—it calls into and touches upon our present. The poems of Cuello’s debut collection Pricking—divided into three sections and set in thirteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth-century France, respectively—offer their reader real bruises and real tendernesses. As Rusty Morrison has written of Cuello’s work: “[These poems] are direct and immediately accessible in their emotionality, and yet glow with an otherness that is distinctly not of this time period.” I want to suggest that the strange glow of Cuello’s poetry is the light of human living (an experience that never, somehow, feels ordinary), and that for Cuello, the past is made from the same uncertain and vibrant fabric as the present. Consider the poem “Widowed Young,” which occurs in a sequence of poems belonging to a sixteenth-century French midwife. The poem opens with a pair of remembrances—one that speaks to emotional distance (an arranged marriage) and one to intimacy, the speaker recollecting:

We were paired by another.

I was surprised to touch your hip
that drew a line into your groin.

The leap between the opening line, where relationship is a transaction, and the action of the speaker touching her husband’s hip creates an immediate, lived world. The surprise is intimacy itself: the lightness of the touch skimming the page, tracing the other’s body. Poetry, even at its most maximalist, is the language of silence—of what gets cut off at the line’s ending, what falls between the lines into space and quiet. The widowed speaker of the poem names some of her silences, griefs, losses:

I gave up the acres and the sheep.

No one comes around
except the dream.

I flew toward you: Mattieu.

Shadows stretched beside me.
I thought they were my hair—

cut off and thrown onto the ground.

Time, for the young widow, is a thing suspended in the loss of person, land and livestock. The spareness of the poem’s lyric limns a life pared down—the acres and sheep gone, the hair shorn and falling to the floor. Dreams and shadows fill the couplets. Having begun on a single line, the couplets form and break until the poem’s final closing line: a single stich.

Employing emotionally responsive, first-person speakers, Cuello draws her reader into domestic and community drama—into the life of the everyday. Pricking, its title taken from the name of a test for identifying whether a person was a witch, takes us to the needle against the skin in a way that we, too, can feel. Its opening poem, “The Births: 1186,” describes the speaker’s prenatal illness: “When I was pregnant again / a fever thinned me out. / My sweat stopped nothing.” Although this poem could be described as a persona poem, it is a poem first, the reader present in the poem even as the writer is present in the speaker. We hear the speaker’s inner thoughts: “I told myself to remember / the pattern of stars, the yellow flowers, / the tremor of my thighs.” Here is not the exterior, choreographic gaze of a camera on a birth scene, but the interior and subjective gaze of the woman in labor. We hear, too, how otherworldly (and animal) postpartum feels to the speaker as she tells how:

When the baby girl could sit up, her hair
like loose fur, I put the details together.
I could not find the sense in them.
I bit into my arm
when she was born. She came out
pink and gold—her eyes remained
in the other world for days. 

Cuello’s poetry attends to the otherworldly quality of our lived experiences, our different histories. The oppositional pairing of intimacy and distance draw us into medieval France, brings us close to the Cathars, to the Languedox region, to Joan of Arc (“Who doesn’t know Jeanne D’Arc?” reads the single endnote on this section), to the European witch hunts during the Protestant Reformation. Cuello’s poems embrace the special persecutions that belong to women (accused witches and midwives, the socially marginalized such as the elderly and the widowed) and the religiously dissident, the vision-having (the Cathars, Jeanne D’Arc). Her poems are a linen cloth that hold the historical world as the net in the Apostle Peter’s vision held all the animals of the earth: the clean and the unclean, the sanctioned and unsanctioned. In “No Space Holier Than Another,” the speaker considers the sacred beauty of her own body:

I held a mirror up
to my breasts. That’s the end

of beauty. Bird-like bones
that fit together for every glance.

One feels, reading lines like these, the brilliance (both brightness and sharpness) of their simplicity, their grammatical cleanness. The way the short sentences, too, dovetail across the couplets. The remaining two couplets shift and the enjambment eases out, disappears into end-stopped lines:

Afternoons spent in the sun,
the oiled feathers of my youth.

I was a pilgrim in a room.
I was a measure, once a song.

As Emily Dickinson wrote, this is the special gift of the written word, “To take us Lands away.” Cuello’s poetic line—often spare, emotion stacked on each syllable—brings to mind the final couplet of the same Dickinson poem: “How frugal is the Chariot / That bears the Human Soul.” One encounters the same move towards concision (not minimalism, which is not quite Cuello’s project—she is after the lyric line, whatever syllable it is, not merely after the short-form or the spare) in the poems that make up Jeanne D’Arc’s sequence. In “Jeanne D’Arc Thinks of Her Virginity,” the lines

……………………. A virgin
can prophecy for God, but once

a mother,
nothing else

sit like stones on the page, weighting the speaker’s meditation. The internal dialogue is no less heavy in “70 Feet Down,” which depicts Jeanne D’Arc’s legendary leap to freedom from a castle wall into a dry moat, and opens: “Can you be dropped from the lips of the Lord? / I leapt. The ledge / less certain than the bracing cold.” The poems in Pricking all treat nouns with a gentleness, almost a disbelief—the speaker’s touching their sides, the ground’s dirt, the lavender crushed in their hair. In the final lines of “70 Feet Down,” the nouns swell to epic proportions as Jeanne D’Arc considers herself and her political vision:

Lying there, the limbs
were separate, and the mind.

I was ordinary.
I was my sword. I was the town.


Hunt by Jessica Cuello. The Word Works, 2017. 81 pages. $17.

II.

Cuello’s second collection, Hunt (The Word Works, 2017), is the winner of the 2016 Washington Prize. In a conversation with fellow author Jenna Le at Passages North, Cuello had this to say about the project of Hunt:

I can see that there is an eco-poetics to Hunt, but I didn’t approach the poems from that direction. If I write from an idea or an ethics, my poems tend to be doomed. I do think that environmental concerns are directly related to our violence to people; on my mind now is Flint, Michigan and the [Dakota Access Pipeline]…The poems in Hunt were borne out of a passion for Moby Dick and my own obsessions (which emerge from a kind of mixture of repression and pressure), but they ended up being eerily timely. At a reading in November, a week after the [2016 Presidential] election, I read a few of the Ahab poems. When I read the first lines, “The word brother is not his word. / It’s Me and Them” from “The Chase ~ First Day” the room grew deeply quiet. We all knew. I had a lump in my throat reading the last lines.

Hunt, then, in a continuation of themes from Pricking, also demonstrates Cuello’s interest in naming and testifying to historical, social violence. There is a density of beauty in Cuello’s lines—in her shifting registers of language and agility with double entendre, metaphor—but reading and rereading her poems shows how deepest and clearest is her attention to emotion and violence as a rope around us all. This attention—and the acknowledgement that violence does not happen in a vacuum, but between humans and other animals, humans and the environment—gives Cuello’s poems a philosophical facility and a litheness of form. These poems are what a capacious, feeling mind makes of the world.

The first poem in Hunt, “Loomings: The Wife at Home,” shows a sharedness of bodies and environment between the human speaker and the implied whale, as the language of sea and “beast” roil into the language of conception and pregnancy:

The body makes a sea:
a sea for mine, for the stay behind

When the men go
and ropes clatter at the dock

we hear them off, off
and inside my tumbling sea

a beast rolls over
on the clay bottom

I sense her lovesick eye
in the corner

cordoned on all sides
her beasty eye

where the rage pools
in the umbilical silt and moon

I subdue her trance
and claw, her dreamy eye

shrill with disappointment
and left to survive

What language does a poet reach for to describe an extreme of both intimacy and distance—the fetus hidden inside the body? “[T]he Lord won’t crush what moves / on its own…secretly,” wrote the poet Fanny Howe in her poem “The Nursery.” In Cuello’s poem, the fetus rolls like a whale in the deep—unlike a whale’s movements, this is an event the mother’s body feels dramatically. And yet it is hidden, and birth “looms” in the future. Under the title of “Loomings,” the creatures of the ocean and the human body shadow the page, the poem, and the arcing narrative of Hunt. The animal linking of bodies between “wife at home” and whale occurs at both the metaphoric and the physical levels. In later poems, the analogy that woman and whale are both subjects of different hunts is developed (as in the poems “The Whale Reflects on Being a Hunted Object,” “The Whale Looks at Painted Depictions of Herself,” and “The Whale as Object of Desire”). But at the level of the body and the environment, woman and whale are both mammals, and the amniotic fluid that the fetus floats in is the same saline content as the sea: “the body makes a sea.”

The gate that Hunt’s first poem swings open is one of negativity—in the theological, philosophical and creative sense of not-knowing. It ushers its reader into the strangeness of the environ: Herman Melville’s infamously detailed novel, Moby Dick. It offers the weight of history, the weight of a source text, the weight of characters and other people. It hints at the metamorphosis-like merging of whale body and human body that will take place across its poems, the inversion of Melville’s narrative (the whale has a voice and perspective, now). When I ask myself what Cuello’s Hunt risks, the answer I find is strangeness, the discomfort of violence—that is, what good art risks all the time: drawing the reader’s attention towards the terrible beauty of our world and our deeds. As in Pricking, the violence is real in poems like “The Counterpane” (“Trying to contain the sudden flinch / and little bruise, I beat. / I beat to bring on silences”) and “Ahab’s Wife Thinks of Her Honeymoon,” where the wife speaker recalls:

That girl repeats five times
whatever she will say.
She looks the other way
out of her life
when he throws her to the floor,
limp rag, a body with its holes.
A brute can be a good guy,
can provide.

Every human history is a history of violence, but Cuello’s Hunt puts narratively linked violences on a revolving stage together. How should you respond as a reader when you encounter artistic renderings of violence and suffering? The best response is to never stop asking yourself this question. Iris Murdoch, in her essay “Against Dryness” (in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature) argues that “art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure…Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.” The magic of Hunt is in its feeling-attention to multiple perspectives, to the imaginative space it gives to the thoughts, dreams, testimonies and accounts of women, children, the whale, the other sailors, the tools of the hunt and sailing, the forge. Under each poem’s title, an accompanying reference to a chapter in Moby Dick, a textual touchstone. And nowhere—nowhere—a consolation prize for reading.

By not consoling its reader, Hunt is able to pursue other readerly goods—such as a wonder that is yoked to truth, to the strangeness of human and animal lives. In this wonder lives a critique of relations and power dynamics. Masculinity, labor, the brutal conditions produced by market, whiteness, gender—these concepts and forces are engaged at the level of the poem’s line. In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the whale describes:

You stood on the abyss.
My body dove. It was speckled,

brown, earth-bound. The whiteness
was your own mind looking on.

What this poem is able to do, how it is able to talk about perspective and point of view, is encompassed by the narrative of whale and hunter, of desire and prize. “The paint was a lie,” the whale explains, “but the act of painting was real.” This is one of the best poems I have read addressing the ability of whiteness to negate a vision of others, to shape the world after its own image and act of “perception.”

Ahab white-washes the whale with his mind. It is a sonnet-like ability to do such rich, conceptual work in the space of a single page.

In the poem “Squid,” the whale describes its food,

My food rose in white ghost glory,
sent silence over the water,
came from an under
where forests begin and mountains.

The whale describes its food, its hunger: “the pleasure is / that bite. The skin, the juice that runs, / Disgorge an arm, pulpy mass, cream,” and how it eats “But to survive. / To be alive.” This is a marked difference between whale and human hunter. In the poem’s final line, the whale notes: “You are different: kill and sell,” a condemnation of humankind’s drive for profit and usury, for the hunt of the natural world that results in excess and spoilage.

Hunt and Pricking testify to a poet who moves fluidly through human and literary history with deep range, feeling, and formal dexterity. Each of Cuello’s collections reads as a lyric catalog, gathering an abundance of wreck and loveliness that transgresses the nets of their lines and stanzas.

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