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Jesse Nissim

“He thought the sea was his”: Gender and Ownership in Jessica Cuello’s second collection, Hunt

The first ocean we encounter in Jessica Cuello’s haunting collection, Hunt, is called into being through the body and imagination of a woman: “The body makes a sea…for the stay behind / When the men go / and ropes clatter at the dock” (4). Appearing in the book’s first poem, this image surprises readers in the best way by jolting our perception of both the sea and the power of the body, while foreshadowing the central themes of her engagement with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Melville assigns male pronouns to Moby Dick, but Cuello genders her as female; and while Melville’s tale centers around the vengeful Ahab’s mission to capture and kill the great white whale, Cuello repurposes that celebrated hunt to explore the self-serving illusions that perpetrators of gendered violence project onto their victims, as well as the resourcefulness and resilience of those who are targeted.

With these concerns in mind, Cuello positions her poems keenly and intimately inside the consciousness and flesh of whales and women, rather than inside the men who attempt to lay hands or claims on them. And the men who do speak in this collection use their voices to reveal the fallacies of ownership and conquest. Her choice to title the first poem, “Loomings, The Wife at Home: Chapter 1,” seems to nod to Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and traces the epic tradition back to Homer. In this sense, her work can be viewed as critiquing the genre which was initially imagined by male writers through narratives that helped to normalize and reproduce practices of male conquest. Just as Penelope’s loom is a metaphor for her cunning resistance from within her domestic role of limited power, Cuello’s speakers use subversive methods to actively resist flesh-hungry men. One painful example is the speaker in “Ahab’s Wife Thinks of Her Honeymoon: Chapter 28” who “looks the other way / out of her life / when [Ahab] throws her to the floor.” Though the act of looking “out of her life” can’t stop the reality that her husband is raping her, it re-asserts her agency over that life, despite her husband’s physical dominance over her body. In other words, rendering herself a “limp rag, a body with its holes” serves to articulate her life separate from his (10).

As Cuello’s female speakers share their realities of being hunted—pursued, stalked, stabbed, raped, decapitated, de-fatted, and otherwise humiliated—they remain lucidly aware of how their hunters attempt to erase and replace them with projected fantasies. “What of how you saw me? / Great gulf. Blank, blank” (11). In this early lyric poem, the whale-speaker prays, “do not darken me with / words and ink and incantation. / Please don’t think of me” (11). Female readers will immediately recognize this desire to remain invisible, this desire to evade the unwanted, persistent attention from men. Through this intelligent mammal’s voice, all readers can also recognize the will and perhaps even the right of the whale to exist freely out of the reach of harming human hands. Later, when the whale speaks “as a Dish,” she speaks of her own purpose, instincts, and obligations: “I fed my baby / from the inside / out. And now / I am in the mouth / of a man; he holds / his little knife” (30). The hunter’s "little knife" diminishes him next to the whale; while she skillfully feeds others, he hunts someone’s mother to feed himself. The “Great gulf. Blank, blank” of the whale’s body is not reality, but it’s what the hunter projects. He erases her so he can rewrite her with the “words and ink” of his vision. His refusal to see her is what allows him to hunt her. This lack of understanding harms him as well, and Cuello’s use of dramatic irony helps readers appreciate this tragic dynamic. “He thought the sea was his / to disturb and disturb…./ I thought how sad men were / vulnerable in their heads” (27).

Though this collection focuses on gendered subjugation, Cuello’s poems nevertheless speak to other ways that the dominant project untrue characterizations onto the dominated in order to justify their domination. Readers might think of the fallacies used to normalize or justify slavery, genocide, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the profiling of Arabs and Muslims, or mass incarceration. Here she writes as the hunted addressing the hunter: “[M]y body in the dark, / dumb and glowing— / a churchyard of snow//….A giant blank…. / My body dove. It was speckled, // brown, earth-bound. The whiteness / was your own mind looking on.” The whale catches the eye of the hunter, but all the hunter sees is “a giant blank,” a screen on which he imagines the whale as a lesser creature, one who is dangerous and therefore must be captured. The hunter doesn’t see the actual whale—its “brown, earth-bound,” diving body—and instead sees a projection of his “own mind” (19).

Still, alongside all the struggle in these poems, Cuello emphasizes the great strength of those who are hunted. Cuello writes in the voice of a whale: “I left water. I grew legs. / I made a raft for the child, / but the men I sank” (12). Here we see the whale's full reclamation of agency: her determination to survive, to save others who are even more marginalized, and to “sink” her dominators. Cuello’s hunted subject knows herself—“I cannot live outside of water”—and won’t be reduced to whatever the hunters have made her out to be (25). In “The Whale Looks at Painted Pictures of Herself” she claims: “They [the hunters] have pictures of me, / none of them right.” Ultimately, the whale places her own life at the center of the action, revising the epic narrative. “Your eyes travel the road / of my skin, tilt at the throat // and all this time, you’ve gazed / into the sea at yourself /…but I am fighting for my life, / I am the plot, / not the scenery” (23). These poems insist that we fight against the mischaracterization that undergirds so much oppression, and we need them urgently.

➥ Jesse Nissim Bio

➥ Jessica Cuello Bio