Reading Jessica Cuello’s Liar is like being tossed into a dark well of memory, where salvation is a braided rope of words that burns as one’s grip tightens, and the receding circle of sky is an unwavering eye. In her stunning third book, Cuello invents/rediscovers a poetic language that comes as close as possible to the ways in which children and adolescents make stories of the worlds into which they have been forced as much as born—stories that serve both as testimony and as means of escape.
In Liar, selected by Dorianne Laux for the 2020 Barrow Street prize, Cuello’s taut, compelling first-person narratives of young lives remembered or reimagined draw on the details that a child would cling to: pieces of fairy tales; Biblical psalms and religious images; multilayered misspellings of words, such as liyer, hungur, and chiald; a dead dog that reappears as a ghost; small gifts (a Crayola box with a sharpener, an Easter basket with a molting toy rabbit) that help to construct a memorial to the nearly forgotten dead; retellings of trauma that focus on a central moment, such as the feel of one’s own fingertips on the flesh below a too-short skirt—a humiliation endured at a teacher’s command.
“I have been a public school teacher for 24 years,” Cuello said in an interview for the anthology Grabbed: Poets & Writers on Sexual Assault, Empowerment, and Healing (Beacon Press, 2020). “Schools are still very stuck in the 19th century. They have an authoritarian-loving mode that’s tied to the rigid, factory-like structure. Many young people are lost, unheard, and unprotected in schools.” Yet Liar’s dedication is for the teachers & librarians—encompassing both those who act as protectors and saviors and those who do not.
Cuello’s poem “High School Illiterate” recreates the haunting voice of one of the lost. Here, the repetition of “My god” is an exclamation of trapped pain and an unheard prayer, and the use of white space represents everything that the speaker cannot comprehend:
How did I get this far
Like a secret passed along
My god my teacher
Why desert me When my mother
appears in the door frame
she will say I can’t She will ask
for more excuses
My god way back in first grade
when the others got the words
I used pictures
In “I’m the Slut,” a fourteen-year-old’s blossoming sexuality makes her, for the first time in her life, “visible”—but her incarnation as “…the Renoir girl / tacked to the art room wall / in a haze of gold and cheek” is distorted by a world in which “slut” is not only a taunt, but a harrowing destiny:
She’s the biggest slut
of all, the principal said.
The boys trade us
as sluts with matching boots.
Pretty bitch, say the boys.
More attention than
we’ve ever had.
9th grade and life within.
9th grade and I am mom to be.
School life mirrors home life, including homes that are impoverished, unstable, full of shame. The first-grade speaker in “Hungur” is doubly trapped: “Hungur was secret…Shame was the time of day.” The poem’s ending, however, suggests that this girl’s “hungur” for learning—equal to her longing for food—might save her:
…The body sat in the square of desk.
Hungur pulled. The alphabet lined
the board. The words That This Those
were tacked on the wall, strange suns
the head grew toward.
One theme that reverberates throughout Liar is the destruction—and incomplete reconstruction—of family in the face of betrayals, abandonments, estrangements, deaths. The daughter’s distance from her mother is unbearably poignant. In “Imona,” set during a hallucinatory Halloween night, it is only extreme shared illness (pneumonia) that draws the child close to her mother:
into my mother’s bed—
she had Imona too—
our hot bodies slept
beside each other.
The sheets were drenched.
What we dreamt
climbed out of
our fever heads.
In “At My Mother’s Wedding,” the mother’s marriage to a stepfather after the father’s departure is an occasion of joy for the daughter, centered in her special dress “of tiny appliqued flowers” that “hung / in my closet for years though I never / wore it again.” But the celebration is marred by the disapproving absence of the mother’s mother (the same grandmother who screams the child into “self-selected mute[ness]” in “Liyer”). This grandmother’s rejection is transmitted like a curse through the generations:
..I knew what a wedding was, an image
of the upstairs window, a ritual where
my mother’s mother was, slanted light
at end of day. Not that I saw her there,
only that I needed to witness, to recall it
later so I could understand my mother
and her absence whenever I felt joy.
The poem “Green Eyes,” written like a confidence imparted in a single shuddering breath, traces the trail of damage strewn by rejection, through episodes of childhood and adolescence to a moment of adult revelation. From the mother’s opening admonition— “Don’t pout too much it’ll make you witchy”—the speaker cannot see herself except through her mother’s eyes:
…I preferred approval to
the glass how to gather the sweetness her eyes
had for the neighbor’s girl for the grocer’s daughter
I didn’t look at myself I wanted to be seen not see
For my mother I unsaw my own eyes which she said
It is not until the speaker is with “a man [who] loved me” that she realizes that her eyes are in fact green: “Don’t you know the color of your own eyes?”
Jessica Cuello’s work reminds the reader that both pain and love must be remembered and recorded, that our lives are distorted and constructed piecemeal, and that salvation can come from unexpected sources. “At Five I Burned Down My Grandmother’s Bathroom” (not the only house fire described in Liar) introduces a step-grandmother who, instead of blaming or punishing the child for lighting the match that spread into flame, fixes the damage with yellow paint, and then enfolds the girl in love:
…She forgot we weren’t blood
relations, she said, Jessie,
You inherited my singing voice.
I was hers.
When this woman dies at the age of 100, the speaker is among those present to help her move into the past and from there to another plane of existence:
…She talked to people
We couldn’t see.
We are going to the icehouse.
She saw people on the other side.
It was her first time going
to the icehouse and the light
was not flame, but growing.
Photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher