Half a father, door-turned father, father of the residence,
father broke and broken, father borrowing from
the child. father drubbing, father pages, father lies.
After the baby died P. befriended my step-sister.
He made a come-and-go, an avoidance of my grief bucket,
turned his back on the careless coma doctor.
He was A man of many parts made from the legs of me
the chest of her, dissected red & covered with a poultice.
I’m sewn from gut to brain with scraps of men.
Ta fille, Mary Shelley
*Mary Shelley was the daughter of writers Mary Wollstoncraft and William Godwin. Her mother died 10 days after her birth. She fell in love with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at age 16, and against her father’s wishes (Shelley was already married & a father), fled to France with him. She was pregnant at the time. When she returned, her father refused to see her. After the death of her own newborn child, Percy withdrew and spent a lot of time with Mary’s step-sister, Jane. A Man of many parts is Shelley herself quoting from Milton’s Prometheus.
I alternate between book and milk. Pure air and burning sun
We took in a girl called Polly Rose. She kept my flowered plate.
It’s nine months to make a life. Then you feed and rock their little
forms. You worry them into morning, then worry them into night.
At Bishop’s Gate they carried out the coffers and the chairs. Money
is an extra skin that keeps some safe. I tell my boy to stay away
from damaged people. Polly’s feet pass our bedroom door.
She is the neighbor’s girl they couldn’t feed. P. brought her
home. He gave away his shoes. Every woman is damage
or witness or silent eyes strung from baby to man.
Your creator, M.S.
*Mary and Percy Shelley were beset with poverty and debt throughout their relationship. Pure air & burning sun is a line of Mary Shelley’s quoted in Charlotte Gordon’s Biography Romantic Outlaws.
In the grass, the red-self, cardinal, is nerves.
We are in Albion and I am annoyed by Claire again.
She left for 9 months and came back empty.
At night it’s hot. My son turns, I hear him dream.
I hear the linens move with his hot little limbs.
P. does not attend. When women return with empty arms
does a line end. God’s line. I stepped in God’s tent
when P. first went inside me-- we were at your grave.
Do you know that after his death I’d keep the muscle
of his heart inside a drawer-- The red-self, dust.
I am without pity for her woman-pain because—--
I am Your callous girl, Mary Shelley
*It is suspected that Percy also had an affair with Mary’s step-sister Claire (she changed her name from Jane). At one point, Jane was sent away for 9 months. Percy registered the birth of a child to Mary during a time in which she hadn’t given birth. Other details: Percy and Mary first met secretly by her mother’s grave. After his death, she kept his heart in a drawer.
I heard from G. when my half-sister died. Go not to Swansea, disturb not the silent dead.
If a girl is tired of herself, isn’t it her right to leave this world. All this time G. lived
like I was dead. He broke months of silence to write. There is no crawling back to the beginning,
no rewriting of the child. The tics you get are yours to get. My sister was folded in--
a passive missive. I was bite. I remember her room in Swansea where I never went
and I remember the chambermaid who kept Fanny’s wishes and left her alone, except, listen:
she was left alone from start to finish. We shared one mother who could not be shared.
The living daughter, Mary Shelley
*Mary Shelley had a half-sister named Fanny who committed suicide in a hotel in Swansea. Her father told her not to go. Go not to Swansea... is from his letter to her quoted in Gordon’s biography Romantic Outlaws. Fanny was Mary Wollstonecraft’s child from an earlier relationship, but Godwin raised her. It is suspected that she also was in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley.
You knew what couldn’t fit inside your hut of heart: a soldier’s tent of grief and the living girl.
Alegra dies inside a convent at age 7. We don’t tell Claire. Nights later P. can’t sleep.
He sees Alegra walking on the waves though she was Byron’s child, not his. For his own dead children,
he doesn’t dream. They are buried under Arctic weight. We are both inside a den of grief,
but just five years before I sat at father’s table, tuned to the sharpness of my stepmother,
sipping from a childhood cup of blue, and my chest cabinet held a single shelf for you.
Yours, Mary Shelley
*Mary Shelley's step-sister Claire (formerly named Jane) lived with them during the entirety of their relationship. Both women had children while unmarried and were unaccepted in society and by their families. Claire had a child with the poet Byron; he took the child from her and the child died in a convent. Three of Mary Shelley’s children died.
-- Jessica Cuello is the author of Hunt (The Word Works, 2017) and Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016). She has been awarded The 2017 CNY Book Award, The 2016 Washington Prize, The New Letters Poetry Prize, a Saltonstall Fellowship, and most recently, The New Ohio Review Poetry Prize. Her newest poems can be found in Copper Nickel, Cave Wall, Bat City Review, Pleiades, and Salamander.