Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Pricking by Jessica Cuello

Jessica Cuello 

Tiger Bark Press

By the numbers 

ISBN: 978-0-997-63051-0 
Publication: 2016 
Total pages: 74
Number of poems: 69


Pricking is Jessica Cuello's 
first full-length manuscript. Her second collection, Hunt, was the winner of The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works and will appear in March 2017. She is also the author of the chapbooks My Father’s Bargain (Finishing Line Press 2015), By Fire (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013), and Curie (Kattywompus Press 2011). She was the winner of The 2013 New Letters Poetry Prize and the recipient of the 2014 Decker Award from Hollins University for outstanding secondary teaching. Jessica was selected as a Juried Fellow by the Saltonstall Foundation.

I interviewed Jessica on my personal blog last year about her chapbook My Father's Bargain. You can read that interview here.

—Nancy Chen Long


Jessica Cuello's first book Pricking is titled after the act of pricking, a method of witch-hunting in the Middle Ages. Suspects, usually women, were forced to strip naked, while witch-hunters, usually men, pricked the marks on their body—birthmarks, moles, pimples. If the hunter found a spot that didn't bleed, the suspect was declared a witch. Using special needles, these often-times paid hunters would prick and prick until they found a spot that didn’t bleed and would identify that mark as the devil’s mark. The title of the book is indicative of what I sense to be the primary impulse of the book: Woman’s struggle for autonomy over her body, the connection between bodily integrity and empowerment.

The book as a whole is comprised of compressed and spare persona poems that place us smack in the Middle Ages. We find ourselves caught up in the lives of three French women thought to be heretical: Esclarmonde de Foix, Joan of Arc, and a midwife. Through the use of imagination and historical fact, Cuello fleshes out a captivating narrative that brings each woman to life.

There are three sections to the book, one for each woman. The first is in the voice of Esclarmonde de Foix, a prominent leader in Cathar Church in the thirteenth century who was accused of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. The origins of the Inquisition are in Rome’s effort to quash the heretical Cathers, a religious group in the south of France whose practices were believed to contain elements of witchcraft. Esclarmonde had six children and is thought to have turned to Catharism after the death of her husband.

This first section opens with three poems that set the stage for Esclarmonde's rise as a leader of the Cathars. The first poem "The Births: 1186" is about Esclarmonde giving birth to her children and introduces birth as one of the themes of the book. This first poem also signals Esclarmonde's turn towards religion after her sixth child: "After my sixth I locked the door. / ... / The natural world is hard and dirt. / I want to scrape it off my skin." The second and third poems center around her mystical conversion experiences. In "Conversion: May 1204," Esclarmonde begins to hear voices, a whisper that has "no decision it," faint voices that she discovers can't leave, because "they were in the body." While there was indecision in the first conversion poem, the second conversion poem, "Conversion: June 1204," is resolute: "God reversed me. See my legs / jaunt up the hill. / The hot wind is His mouth / around me."

In the remainder of this first section, Cuello's poems propel us forward with Esclarmonde through a Cathar-Catholic debate, the atrocities of the Cathar Wars (aka the Albigensian Crusade), and her life as a fugitive, a time during which she was rarely seen. Throughout this first section, the tone remains even and matter-of-fact in the face of violence, for example "The Foot of Monts├ęgur," which depicts the remaining remnant of the Cathars corralled and then burned alive, "All night, sun sets on the town. / Easily they fit us in the circle. / We are the last of us." This section closes with a funeral lament voiced by Esclarmonde for her brother Raymond Roger, a non-Cathar who fought to oppose the crusades:

Planh For My Brother, Raymond Roger, Count of Foix

While I was finding room
to hide refugees and heal the sick
you were present.
We never lacked
for things to do and moved
in the self-importance of our birth.
Once, pinning up my reddish hair
I paused and thought of your boyish head.
We were two foxes
from the last litter of our kind.
Our tongues were South.
When you were before the church
half-dressed and shackled,
I couldn’t look.
The world did not seem
long enough in history.
No, it was done.
Our land. Our tongue.
At the end you said your only wish was
that you’d killed more of them.

The second section of Pricking is set in 15th-century France. Most the poems are in the voice of Joan of Arc, another woman who heard voices and had visions. It's a shorter section comprised of ten poems. Around the time that Joan of Arc lived, there were prophecies that France would be saved by a virgin from Lorraine. The first poem, "Jeanne D’Arc Thinks of Her Virginity" hints at the importance of virginity to her ("a virgin / can prophesy for God"), possibly in light of the prophecies. The poem also suggests that once she becomes a mother, she would (or could) no longer be an instrument of God ("but once / a mother, / nothing else.")

I read the first poem of this section to be at a time when Joan of Arc is still with her mother and father. Earlier in Joan's life, her father had a dream that Joan would go off to war. It was a dream that made him frightened for her. This first poem seems to take place soon after Joan hears her mother say that her father told her brothers he would want Joan drowned if she were to leave for war ("I pretend not to know / that he told my brothers // to drown me.") With respect to timing, the remaining poems in this second section seem to take place during the last two years of her life, that is, the year she spent in prison after her capture in 1430 and the subsequent year when she was on trial for heresy. For example, the second poem "70 Feet Down" is likely about one of her attempted escapes from a tower at Beaurevoir Castle where she was first imprisoned. ("Can you be dropped from the lips of the Lord? / I leapt. The ledge / less certain than the bracing cold.")

The poem "In My Cell" appears to be set during a time when the interrogations for Joan of Arc's trial of witchcraft and heresy were moved to her prison cell. In this poem, we see the return to the of idea of mother in which Joan of Arc is mother to herself:

.... shackled to the wall at night
I dream in silence of Lorraine.

The fields are wide. I hold
my left hand in

my right and kiss
my fingers like a mother.
This reference to being a mother bridges back to the opening poem of this section and suggests that Joan is realizing the end of her prophesy, of her usefulness to God. The idea of mother continues in this section's final poem "Isabelle D’Arc Thinks of Jeanne," which is in the voice of Joan of Arc's mother. Coming as it does after a poem titled "Executioner," we know that Joan of Arc is now dead. It strengthens the poignancy of the poem, a mother bearing the grief of a lost child, as we listen to Isabelle talk to her daughter: "I hear your humming while I work / as if you left it in the timbers of our home." The idea of the child being heard and held within the timbers (walls) of a home presages a metaphor of womb-as-a-room, a metaphor that is introduced in the next section.

The third and final section of the book is set in 1580 during the Reformation and associated witch trials. The poems are told in the voice of a midwife. Unlike the second section, which begins with the speaker not wanting to be a mother, this section opens up stressing the importance of motherhood and birth. In the opening poem, "Midwife," the speaker, who is assisting in a birth, uses room as a metaphor for the womb: "All of us began in a room." Speaking of the woman giving birth, the midwife asks "What room is she?" and answers her own question, an answer which highlights the importance of bearing children during this time period: "Walls that go / when they hold no one."

Even though the first handful of poems in this section are about birth and midwifery, the reader will find herself immersed in death. In this arc of the narrative, the speaker recalls one of her own children, a son who died after nine days ("Nine days. The court / remembers. Even my goat / has babies longer", from the poem "Baby Boy.") In addition, one, possible two of the babies whose birth she attends die ("Sick Infant," "Baptism.") In addition, the speaker becomes a widow ("Widowed Young.")

The story turns once the speaker is widowed: She stands accused of witchcraft, likely due to the death of the babies. At the time of the Reformation, some people drew a connection between midwifery and witchcraft. Midwives were not infrequently prosecuted in church courts for providing charms either to assist the mother in childbirth/ pregnancy or to encourage conception. In the poem "Evidence Before the Court" (see the third poem in the link), the midwife denies that she crafted an aigullette "to take a man away." An aigullette is, among other things, a knotted loop of thread used by midwives and/or witches to cast a spell, either for bareness in the case of women, or impotence in the case of men. Through the skillful use of anaphora ("I never / never" repeated twice), the reader is left wondering if perhaps the speaker has indeed used the aiguillette. In the poem, the allusion to Eve, Original Sin, and the biblical garden ("an apple in my / bucket smelling / of the devil") foregrounds the belief at the time of the inherent evilness of women and the blame of women by the Judeo-Christian church for all ills that beset humanity.

After the accusation of witchcraft, the midwife is subjected to a number of tests: "Lack of Tears (see the fourth poem at the link)," "Pricking Test," "Water Test," and "Fire Test." The tests were nothing less than legalized abuse, sexual violence, and murder. Unfortunately, the midwife meets the fate of many who stood likewise accused—she is found guilty of being a witch ("They found the marks," from the poem "Limbo.") The midwife speaks from beyond the grave in this final poem in an understated tone, with what I read as relief: "How familiar: I won’t belong / to the face that made me. / I won’t belong by living." One leaves this last section feeling the full potency of being accused of, and/or prosecuted for, witchcraft, how potent it was as a tool of intimidation, how effective—almost foolproof—it surely must have been in controlling women and their bodies.

Pricking is a successful first book. Its themes carry the reader through each woman's life and time in history, beginning and ending with birth, mother, and midwifery. The themes of body and agency integrate the poems to form a satisfying whole, from the first section, in which Esclarmonde, in "Material," tells us:

My God had no argument,
he panted through my body
until the body was inward
like the caves: cool, silent.
Until it was as the cliffs...
...until the final poem, "Limbo," in which the midwife "waits with the unsaved babies," her soul in limbo, body-less like the others there, until they are reunited with their bodies at the Resurrection. Cuello's consistent use of an understated tone and her finely-chiseled, spare language serve the poems well by standing in contrast to the violence witnessed in the poems. Cuello's poems bring history to life.


- by Jessica Cuello

Soon she would have learned
to strip the membrane
near the womb.
One finger to set
the labor on.

Then she would have learned
to turn the baby
in the mother’s water.
A sailing planet in her hands.

"Apprentice" and "Planh For My Brother, Raymond Roger, Count of Foix" © Jessica Cuello Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light Into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013.) You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Prairie Schooner, The Briar Cliff ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. She received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the Writers Guild at Bloomington, she coordinates a reading series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. nancychenlong.com

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