The poems Jessica Cuello’s Liar, chosen for the 2020 Barrow Street Book Prize, are written primarily in the voice of a child/young woman learning to place herself within an adult world that cannot provide her with adequate care. The poems are at the same time written from dual temporal distances, as if the speaker is simultaneously living, observing, assessing, and somehow, also telling from the experience of having reckoned. It’s a tricky move, to write both from the innocence of childhood and the understanding of maturity, but here Cuello does so, and beautifully.
Cuello gives voice to a shadow population, sorting the cruelties of being young, poor, female, wrought by neglect. “I Nod When the School’s Visiting Doctor Asks if I Eat Three Meals a Day” opens with: “In my family / you recreate invisible // and freeze like a rabbit.” The speaker did not, even for a moment, have cause to believe life would be anything other than brutal. Each day is lived in rawness, and even dreams and imaginings carry violence. The speaker dreams about their birth:“The black and blue mother // scrapes herself together / and into the world comes // a baby with her mouth open. In my family you tame your needs.” The want scrubbed out of her.
The poet writes of house fires, hunger, and longing through the youthful voice of a speaker who is both knowing and yet still able to conjure more for herself. Memory and imagination mix in a way that feels like a coping strategy as well as a need to document, a desire to make the speaker’s story known. The speaker is not directly casting blame, except back at the self, a stance which increases the reader’s sympathy. Cuello writes compassionately about trials such as illiteracy, single motherhood, mental illness, death by suicide, and mourning. Often, the topic is not named, and this oblique approach combined with the lack of sensationalism feels like a sort of reverence. The moves the poet makes are quiet. Just as the circumstances are understated, the lyric moves are subtle.
The one more obvious strategy Cuello uses is misspellings. The tactic does not occur throughout, appearing most visibly in titles, and used to mark poems related to childhood: “Hungur,” “Stumic,” “Liyer,” “Sind,” to name a few. I puzzled over these, coming to the conclusion that they indicate places where we are to inhabit the child’s mind and interpret through the viewpoint of a limited or not fully matured world. Innocence of context, unshaped by adult knowledge, we are given a report and asked to assess for ourself. These sporadic, occasional markers remind us that we are to consider the lens of a child; they also remind us that there is a difference between what we hear or think we hear and what is “truth” in the adult world.
In “Liyer” the speaker knows much more than the adults who cannot imagine her beyond her mutism. She assures us, “I know what speech is,” but must save this aspect for herself. She proves to us, the reader, that she is in control: “I hoard the words. / I know what speech is, // lines where words go.” This thing that the adults want, her words, is the thing she can control. Perhaps it is her only agency.
I am the child of liyers.
The lady writes
Down on her paper.
We don’t know where
her words are
though I once fit
inside her daughter.
The speaker knows who she is, and realizes she is alone.
Liar maps a history of want and shame, topics that cut deeper when written this lyrically. In the second section of the book, the speaker is still a child, now on the verge of being a young woman. The world continues to cruelly tell her who she should believe she is. She plays at ownership.
In “That shirt makes you a whore because it’s black,” Cuello writes:
When the 11-year-olds played
streetwalker I was the best. What did the best mean?
It meant no smile. It was shame in girl fomr, which
was shame’s first form. It meant relinquish the body.
It was the body in plain sight
but hidden––the girl’s small cocked hip in a roomful of girls.
Throughout systemic and familial failings, the speaker sorts through her desires, many of which are so minimal, that when they are refused, we are left gutted and astonished. She longs for attention, to be seen as a good daughter, to be worthy. The speaker shrinks and shrinks, until becoming a mere observer, witnesses to others’ hardships, offering them much more sympathy than she allows herself.
I flip back to “To Loneliness.” This poem has a less obvious narrative, but as it is placed early in the book (p6-7), it sets an emotional footing. Its meaning widens on the reread. It seems to speak in direct address to the state of being lonely as well as to the self, which in effect, merges the two. The speaker addresses and is loneliness: “You’re a room with no doors, / the innermost white ash // of the fire, a wool / coat with X’s sewn on the inside. / You are a liar.” By the end of the poem, the reader finds a bit of calm and the possibility of––what?––solace? Survival? I am not even sure, but the ending carried me through: “You read to rid yourself / of invisibility, and at night, // become a lone tollbooth worker / hunched with fluorescent desire.” Here, we see the speaker was never a passive observer, but rather was gathering, gathering, biding their time.
Linda Michel-Cassidy writes criticism and reviews for venues such as The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Heavy Feather Review, and Entropy Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, Painted Bride, Catamaran, Tahoma Review, No Tokens, Eleven Eleven, and others. She teaches experimental prose and flash, serves on the board of the Marin Poetry Center, and is an installation artist. She lives on a houseboat in Northern CA and in an old adobe in Northern New Mexico.