Jessica Cuello By Fire Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013 Ribbon-bound Paperback, $6.00 25 pages
By Fire is a text grounded in a history. Jessica Cuello provides a brief historical note, which is placed in the back of the chap, so I read By Fire the first time through without it. I felt placed by the titles, and by the character and voice of the poems themselves; I held my questions. The titles often give a year (as in the first poem, "The Births: 1186"). In the second poem, “Conversion: May 1204,” the vocabulary begins to build: we get “Foix” for the first time, as a place, and we get “Cathar” as a converting force. I experienced the poems in this way, before I reached the historical note. On subsequent reads, I had that information with me, and I appreciated it, but it is possible to access these poems cold. By Fire takes place between 1186 and 1238-44, when the last of the Cathars were burned alive by Catholic crusaders. The poems focus on Esclarmonde de Foix, a highest-ranking Perfect in the Cathars, and her efforts to defend the Cathars at a stronghold she built, Montségur.
What most impresses me about this book is how current a set of poems set in the 12th and 13th centuries can feel. The line that caught me, and which still plays in my head months after first reading this chap, is "I place/ the head of the girl with the girl." This sentence is despairingly simple. At first, I found it too simple to understand. When I finally understood, I was struck by the fact that these poems end, this group of people was killed off centuries ago, and yet this is the stuff of news stories, now: "I place/ the head of the girl with the girl."
This line comes from “Massacre at Béziers: 1209.” It ends like this:
When we had cleaned up best
we could, we sat apart in a field.
No one made food. We were afraid of taste.
These sentences are representative. The forms of the poems change. Some are very small in couplets, and others are long, featuring longer stanzas. The violence of the book is controlled by the restrained syntax and its resulting tone.
The speaker of these poems is tasked with a lot. We learn of Catharism through her body. Cuello does this well, while still treating her as a character with development. In “Material,” we get some knowledge of Catharism’s view of sinful flesh or maybe the speaker’s questioning of that:
My God had no argument, he panted through my body until the body was inward like the caves: cool, cavernous. Until it was as the cliffs: terrifying. Dizzy.
And later, “You cannot eat/ your way through flesh/ to find the spirit world.” While the bulk of the poems move the narrative of the Cathars along, Cuello builds in time for the characters to be human. There is a wedding. There is a moment, the poem “Cat,” where there is no mention of war at all, just the interaction of two bodies:
Truth pursues me like a girl. I shake her free so I can enter in my dream where you have shaved your cheek.
My bare fingers on your naked face.
I find myself wishing for the poems to continue. Ultimately, I think that is the work of a book or (especially) a chapbook—to leave the reader wanting. Ultimately, this is my favorite kind of poetry. The kind that seems to be about one set of things but which speaks through and outward and beyond. I didn’t know that I wanted to know about the Cathars. Here, I end up wanting more. And while I don't think it is the job of poetry to teach me about things, I do think poems should make me wonder. These do that.
Hyacinth Girl Press is a feminist micro-press particularly interested in manuscripts dealing with topics such as radical spiritual experiences, creation/interpretation of myth through a feminist lens, and science. Jessica Cuello's By Fire is available for purchase here.
M. Mack is a genderqueer poet, editor, and fiber artist in Virginia. Ze is the author of the chapbooks Traveling (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015) and Imaginary Kansas (dancing girl press, 2015). Hir poems have appeared in Gargoyle, Wicked Alice, Adrienne, and The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), among others.