Jackleg Press, 2023
110 pages, $18.00
Review by Donna Vorreyer
In this luminous collection, Jessica Cuello tells the story of Mary Shelley through epistolary persona poems. Some of the well-known details of Shelley’s life are here: her mother’s death at her birth, her relationship with Percy Shelley that resulted in three lost children, her writing of Frankenstein during a rainy shut-in with Percy and other writers. But in Cuello’s meticulously researched and nuanced possession of Mary Shelley’s voice, the reader gets so much more than the facts. Yours, Creature is a full-fledged portrait of a woman who struggles with loss, loneliness, and love, poems that are both windows into the past and mirrors of the now.
Cuello writes in letter form, keeping most of the poems to one page, but the scalpel of her language is sharp and hits close to the core. From the opening poem “Dear Mother, [I wanted to crawl],” her attention to sound and control of the line are evident:
Instead, my currish cry & snarl,
my cuss, my cut-and-run, my cutting tooth,
made death a customhouse.
Cuello heartbreakingly reveals Shelley’s deep scar of abandonment left from her writer-mother’s death, and how she idolized a father who had not reconciled this loss. In “Dear Mother, [I am threatened],” she describes Shelley’s attempts to be the perfect daughter:
I am the apple of his eye
I am the reader of his work
His frown can collapse my spine
His grief for you becomes a pillar
my attention winds onto…
Yet the arrival of Percy Bysshe Shelley, from whom her father was trying to borrow money, changed her relationship with her father forever. Although he found Mary to be more clever than her sister, he was a strict and unforgiving man, one whose lack of nurture for his daughter drove her to seek love where she could find it. In “Dear London 1814,” Cuello uses stark parataxis to lay out the impact that Percy had on the entire family—
Once upon a time,
2 half sisters and a stepsister loved the same boy
The boy had his own wife
The wife was pregnant
The boy was a poet and grandson of a baronet
His name was Percy Bysshe Shelley
No one lived happily ever after
Shelley was a teenager when she and Percy became lovers, and this awakening is referred to in several poems. They would meet on her mother’s grave, making a kind of macabre new family. In “Dear Mother, [Silence was my pride],” Cuello deftly shows the moment Shelley’s affections change—
was a carnation on a stem
made my god-of-a-father look at me:
quiet petals and silver pages
I meant to read until I was his perfect
daughter, but P. put one hand beneath
my smock and all the untouched years
In “Dear Rejection 1815,” Cuello writes “Who can love a second time./His face was the only male face.” Shelley’s father tried to separate them by sending her away to Scotland, yet as Cuello shows in “Dear Scottish Time,” “To be sent is different from being left.//To be left is to remain in the walls that repel you.” Cuello’s lines hauntingly voice how from this moment on, Shelley’s devotion to Percy was complete. In “Dear Mother, [P. was a little flame],” Cuello explains how his love opened Shelley up to feeling something other than her mother’s loss:
He was my shiver, blood on the outside
His light-handed rules,
his heavy-handed love
rewrote you, Mother,
and your grave
Shelley suffered not only her mother’s death but also her father’s rejection. In “”Dear Mother, [Scratch beneath the surface],” Cuello reveals Shelley’s eagerness to please her father despite his indifference to her:
Father hated me for being sad.
I pursued ideas like a horse, a dog,
always behind, raised by a dictum,
not a man.I was a tent-stitch
on the pocket of his mind, a grafted
cut in the bark of his book.
It is not lost on the reader that the poems are all written either to places and times or to her mother, none of which are able to respond. She does not write to the men in her story, neither Percy nor her father. In this way, Cuello’s poems chronicle Shelley’s solitary pain by allowing her to keep company with her trauma without ever directly addressing it, a choice that reveals how then (and now) a woman’s suffering is often isolating and unspoken to the larger world.
Shelley lost the children she had with Percy and lost Percy himself as he chased after her own half-sister. Her life was a litany of abandonment and loss. Is it any wonder that, when turning to the page, she wrote of a doctor who could bring back the dead? Cuello writes of how Shelley dreamt of her own lost children coming back. In “Dear Mother; [I had a dream],” we get the heart-breaking lines:
I had a dream
that my little baby came to life again.
What is it to make a life
that dies—like god
it cannot stand
and in the dream we rubbed it by the fire
and it lived.
In the writing of Frankenstein, Shelley created a creature who held a mirror to her own isolation and loneliness, her feeling of always being a bystander to joy. Cuello deftly gives voice to this ache, and captures Shelley’s struggle with Percy’s abandonment. She makes this connection clear in “Dear Creature, [Sister against half-sister]”:
Deficit as old as food
as old as fire
shining from within
Creature, how female
I made you
peering at the family
& gathering their wood—
But they don’t want you.
Cuello expertly inhabits Shelley’s voice and pen, the letters weaving a tapestry of absence, of reaching for love, of promises unkept in a life where loss piled upon loss and ghost piled upon ghost. Her poems give us the story of a one-sided great love, of Percy’s attention craved yet ultimately ephemeral and inconstant. His heart, which didn’t burn in the funeral pyre, became a talisman Shelley kept after his death. The closing poem “Dear Mother, [I sailed with P before he sailed],” shows all these complex threads clearly:
My chest cabinet had a little fist
inside. The left arm flapped
with grief. In another life
it was a wing and only P. knew
my full-blown name. […]
What if it’s true that I was
a cold wife like they said? […]
I didn’t go to see him burn.
The reader need not be concerned about a lack of knowledge of Shelley’s story as Cuello provides brief biographical information at the start of each section as well as extensive notes. But even without the historical background, Cuello has given us a master class in concision and selective inclusion, not only providing a glimpse into the mind of Mary Shelley, but also into the collective mind of loss and loneliness, the pain of absences that can never be sated.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She hosts the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.