My Father’s Bargain by Jessica Cuello

Finishing Line Press, 2015

Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

In Jessica Cuello’s third chapbook, My Father’s Bargain, the poet turns her eye for detail and whimsical but compassionate imagination to the interior lives of the often hapless daughters, sisters and mothers of well-known European fairy tales. In the same way she imagined the interior life of the famous scientist in her previous chapbook, Curie, here she looks at Gretel, Cinderella, the miller’s daughter of “Rumpelstiltskin,” and other heroines as they endure in real time the familiar trials that centuries of storytellers have spun and re-spun of them.

Here we get a sense of Gretel’s actual hunger and despair as the volume’s first poem begins, “Where to put our bodies?/ We knew how to sit// and pretend we didn’t want/ to eat. Our hunger grew// into our skin. We fit/ inside a hollow tree...//”

Forgetting the storybook image of this tale we grew up with, it’s possible to remember that tales like these came from some actually existing place, perhaps long ago, in this instance, but not so removed from the world as it still exists as we’d like to pretend.

The final, longest poem, “In the Spired House,” begins, “Bird eyes made sense/ after I watched them/ longer than most humans do.//”

Cuello’s narrators tend to cultivate the habit of picking up and carefully turning over each household item, fallen branch or small creature, looking for clues to their underlying nature, to what they choose to tell of their own story.

In “Chamber,” the narrator recounts, “Once I crawled into my brother’s room/ without breathing; I meant to show I/ moved invisibly; I meant to listen/ until I was seen.”

Cuello’s characters bear witness to each other in ways that transform them. Maid Maleen and her servant, shut up together in a dark tower, keep each other alive by talking to each other, describing the world they once knew and the world outside they can no longer see: “Image overpowered us/ and we lost track which voice said what.”

Once released, the memory of their psychic intimacy eclipses what a restored social role or even the relatively less absolute intimacy of life with her true love can offer the princess, and she experiences her former servant’s presence “everywhere—/ attendant.”

In "Donkeyskin," a girl falls in love with a boy in the form of a donkey, with “human skin beneath the fur.”

“His sun-lit ear is fabric thin,// red with life./ We forget our duties.”

Cuello even spares some consideration for the younger of Cinderella’s stepsisters, who, envious, wonders, “... Were there/ soft-spoken mothers?” and concludes, "... I doubt I fit/ into your palace thoughts."

The mother of “The Master Thief,” though remembered for dooming him with her morbid prediction, confesses, “Don’t make me say it./ If you came to hide,/ I would shelter you/ in my own grave.”

Though compromised and exploited by the powerful and cruel or indifferent fathers, mother figures, tricksters and kings who plot out their fates, the characters in this volume aren’t merely bargaining chips or objects of fortune; in Cuello’s rendering, they seem to live, breathe, suffer and reach moments of self-understanding and, when possible, agency, a reminder of what flesh-and-blood human beings have always done — long, long ago as well as in our own time — whether or not anyone with a careful eye is taking note.