Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Jessica Cuello's Curie

Curie by Jessica Cuello
Kattywompus Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Jessica Cuello's debut chapbook, Curie, is a biographic poem cycle devoted to the Polish-French chemist, physicist and twice-honored Nobel laureate who became one of the most famous women of the 20th century.

Cuello's lyrically spare yet sensual narrative style is well-suited to the subject matter of a serious yet passionate woman who spurned frivolity and adornment and pursued her work with absolute rigor but who also loved deeply and was fearless in her intellectual curiosity.

Curie, as shown in these poems, was driven by enthusiasm for her life's work in chemistry and physics as well as by her devotion to her husband and lab partner, Pierre Curie.

Other pivotal events and catalysts in her life included the devastating early loss of her mother and sister, who died within a year of one another; her romantic disappointment when the son of a couple for whom she worked as a governess obeyed his parents' wishes to reject her because of her poverty; her lifelong loyalty to her father and her native homeland, Poland, for which she named one of the elements she discovered, Polonium; and an affair she had with a married colleague after the death of her husband which made her a figure of notoriety in the French press for several years despite her international acclaim.

Cuello treats all of these topics with an agile grace restrained by understatement.

In “Schoolgirl,” we read how the young Maria SkÅ‚odowska “stands for the Russian inspector” and recites the names of the czars while her Polish-language books lie hidden in her desk: “All my life there was a motion/ outside me, and under the desk,/ the saved page. I performed/ at will. My little arms grew.”

The poem ends, “Then it crystallized –/ our shelves were full of specimens,/ burning outward in the dark./ They could not be contained.

In the final part of “Casimir,” a poem about her early suitor's rejection, Cuello's narration dispassionately relays the young scientist's mindset as she embarks on her studies:

In Paris I arrived
without a girl's desire.

I used my memory
for facts. With a porous

mind I woke,
tin roof slanted

over me. Alone
I made my myth

with a cup
of tea and radishes.

In a poem about the miscarriage that ended Curie's second pregnancy, “Fifth Month,” Cuello writes:

The child had been living.
I knew her like the form
in a sideways glance,

like three words
in a whisper before sleep
not ordered for sense,

the way we know everything
somewhere: the salts we will find
at the bottom of the ore,

my husband awake
in the kitchen, stiff with pain
when my eyes open.

The next poem, “Pierre,” which evokes Curie's despondency after the loss of her partner and husband, begins by recalling the tenderness of earlier times:

Slow, careful
as words, you climbed

the steps our wedding night.
Fingers cradled the railing as I would cradle
your head – no one else

feels. Has ever felt.
I wish I had no daughters,
no work. No garish daffodils
in a cup of water.
I was an eye climbing the stairs.
My eye saw out of my chest,
my head heavy
with emptiness.

“Rented Room,” a poem about the affair with Paul Langevin, Marie's colleague, ends, “Yesterday, I asked myself/ as though you were a compound/ why his body?/ My first answer: to merge.// But my second: to annihilate/ the self. I hate/ that you must plan your life.”

The cycle's final poem, “Last Day: July 4, 1934,” describes the hospital bed where Curie was nursed by her younger daughter, whom she had loved but never fully understood because of their dissimilar personalities:

Her fingers turn the sheets

and the static coat
my body walked in everywhere

loosens. Our bodies hum
together in a way

they didn't in our lived lives.
The metal bed glints

like Gallium warmed in hands.

The poems in Curie often begin by holding their treasure at a distance from the unfocused eye, but as the reader is drawn closer, she catches first a glint and then a growing sense of an underlying radiance. I wish more poets wrote like Jessica Cuello does here.

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