Yours, Creature is a collection of hauntingly dark poetry written in the form of letters—known as epistolary poems—in the voice of Mary Shelley. Author Jessica Cuello writes the letters in the persona of Mary Shelley, making the letters read as if Shelley wrote them herself. Cuello combines careful and thorough research, with meticulous imagination, to revive the Romanticism and Gothic icon, telling Mary Shelley’s coming-of-age story through sharing these letters of deeply personal and private thoughts.
The majority of the letters are addressed to Shelley’s mother, and through these letters we gain insight into Shelley’s loneliness in her youth, navigating life without ever knowing her mother and without much nurturing or guidance from her father. While most of the letters are written to Shelley’s mother, there are also some letters written to countries, periods of time, and even Frankenstein’s creature—all of which explore broader concepts than solely Shelley’s relationships with her parents. Cuello’s choice of writing modes, both epistolary and persona, for this collection are interesting to consider throughout reading. To me, it seems that this was the best choice for Cuello in order to fully immerse herself and her writing into Mary Shelley. Cuello does such a seamless job of this that readers can even forget that she’s the author since they’ll be so absorbed into the persona of Shelley that they’ll believe everything in the poems to be true accounts of Shelley’s life, down to every last little detail.
This book is divided up into six sections, all titled with a line of poetry featured in each respective part of the collection. Following each section title page, there is a small blurb with background information on Mary Shelley’s life and upbringing that is contextually relevant to the upcoming group of poems. The sections follow Mary Shelley’s life in chronological order, from birth to her watching Percy’s dead body burn at his funeral. This format allows for the poetry collection to feel like one cohesive narrative. The book starts off with the section titled “A line from the red radius of your womb went dark” which centers around Mary Shelley’s birth, and being brought into the world through a complicated pregnancy that would ultimately kill her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.
The house is gone that killed you:
red-walled, womb of mauve.
I floated inside until it bled like wood
and took a sideways position:
no upright girl: my arm beat
the rib cage with your own urge.
The “house” described in these lines can be seen as Mary Wollstonecraft’s body, which served as a home for baby Mary Shelley while she grew in her mother’s womb. “My arm beat the rib cage” paints a rather violent image of the baby killing the mother through childbirth.
Cuello places Shelley’s mother as a prominent figure throughout these poems, despite Shelley’s mother not even being alive or physically present during the times when the poems take place. It is clear that Shelley has an intense longing for her mother, to know who she was as a person and to think about how her own life would differ if her mother was still in it. Anything that Shelley writes in her letters about her mother’s life are based on things she has been told by her father (or other people who knew her mother) and are crafted into more intricate stories as Shelley describes events—like her own birth—in alarmingly grotesque detail. It is an interesting parallel to consider the way that Shelley recreates detailed stories of her mother’s life through the things she’s been told and compare that to the way Cuello has constructed this poetry collection written in Shelley’s perspective, despite not ever meeting Shelley in person.
It is also very meta to consider Cuello writing from the perspective of Shelley who is (at times) writing in the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft. There’s a palpable kinship that Shelley feels towards her mother, based in her own desires to get to know her mother and ultimately understand a deeper part of her own self—and through this there’s a sense that perhaps Cuello tackled this poetry collection similarly. Cuello’s poems are fueled by her own desires to get to know both Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft on a deeper, more intimate level.
As a result of Shelley’s longing for a bond with her mother, we see how she desperately tries to fill that void in her life through other relationships, particularly with the men in her life. Cuello does an excellent job of depicting grief and illustrating what happens to children who do not receive the proper attention and love from their parents. Shelley tries to get to know her mother by becoming close to her father, and attempting to fill the void in her father’s grief as well, yet this doesn’t completely work and ends up harming their father-daughter relationship. In the second section of the book, titled “Raised by a dictum, but not a man,” Shelley strives to be the best daughter and make her father happy, yet it is impossible for her (or anyone for that matter) to be able to do that one hundred percent of the time.
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
Are you mad that I took your ______
In these lines we see that Shelley is loved and admired by her father, but his opinion also means a lot to her, so his disapproval is a heavy weight on her shoulders. She further discusses her father’s grief over her mother, and how that becomes a “pillar” that holds her attention, creating an unhealthy dynamic between the two as they latch onto their shared grief.
There’s a recurring comparison that Cuello makes throughout the collection of poetry, where she has Shelley call a person in her life a “god.” In the entire book, three people are described as a god: Shelley’s mother, Shelley’s father, and Percy (Shelley’s lover). Shelley’s lack of nurturing and loving parents during her childhood have left her with the tendency to view anyone who gives her the slightest bit of affection as a “god.” We first see Shelley assign the god title to her mother, in a scene where her mother is just a child, “Dear Mother, / Outside the door while / your father raped your mother / you stood like a little god.” Despite having no memories of her mother, Shelley still paints her as a god-like figure in her mind, placing her on a high pedestal. Later on in the book, once Shelley is a young woman running off with Percy, Shelley notes how her father was once a god to her, and now he has been replaced.
I left father a farewell note.
He was my former god
and deserved at least a word
before the soft-skinned god
We see Shelley’s attachment to her sole parental figure leave as soon as another man (Percy) swoops in and is now her new “god,” the sole person she loves. However, this is another idealization of this new person in her life, as he is far from perfect.
and his wife at home
meant this god was like
the other gods: thin love
and absent eye
and never enough
god to go around.
Cuello touches on issues of abandonment and neglect that Shelley experienced as a child with no mother and a grieving father. This is paralleled with Shelley’s relationships when she is a young adult, with a lover who is already married and does not have the mental or physical capacity to care for her the way she needs and desires.
Yours, Creature is a compelling read for both Mary Shelley fanatics and someone who’s never read Frankenstein, as well as everyone in between. Personally, I’m someone who’s read the novel Frankenstein twice during different classes for school – once during my senior year of high school and a second time during my freshman year of college – and while both times I learned a little backstory about Mary Shelley’s personal life, it was nothing like the experience I had reading this poetry collection. Yours, Creature takes the reader right into the headspace of Mary Shelley, making the reader privy to the thoughts that Shelley keeps only to herself. Cuello’s epistolary poems are incredibly captivating, gruesome, and heartbreaking as they tell the tragedies of Shelley’s life in intimately personal detail.
It’s nearly impossible to write a review of Yours, Creature without bringing up Frankenstein, and the clear nods that Cuello makes, showing Shelley’s inspiration for writing the Gothic-Horror novel that would change her career as a writer. There are clear parallels made between Shelley’s own difficult birth, as well as the miscarriages she had, to the creation of the “creature” in Shelley’s novel.
In the beginning
of basins I started my life laboratory:
either the mother-death
or the washing of a child
in a basin of red.
Audrey Cadena is an English Creative Writing & Film Studies graduate from Sonoma State University. Her poem “Talk to me” was published in the 26th edition of Zaum’s annual literary magazine and her poem “scars” was published in the 27th edition. She also has pieces published in Issues 6-21 of The Revival Zine, her latest publication being a nonfiction op-ed piece titled “Mothers, Daughters, & Generational Trauma.” She currently resides in Southern California where she spends most of her time reading and procrastinating working on her novel.