A Review of Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
(Milkweed Editions, February 2018)
Reviewed by Amanda Galvan Huynh
As a Chicana who grew up in Houston and in the backyard of Texas, I was ecstatic to sit down with this bold book as the title itself feels like a resistance to the very culture Latinas are raised in; the cultural and religious upbringing where good Mexican daughters listen and obey. These poems handle themes of desire, heartbreak, coming into womanhood, shame, and naiveté with a strong voice. Even before the first poem is read attention to the collection’s layout reveals that this book breaks bread into seven sacramental sections: Taste, Revelation, Humiliation, Pastoral, Myth, Parable, and Rest Cure.
From the beginning, Sotelo’s not entertaining the idea that these poems will be submissive. The opening poem “Do You Speak Virgin?” sets the pace as this satiric poem shows her talent to manage culturally embedded images. While weddings typically conjure images of happiness, a beautiful bride, and giddy bridesmaids, Sotelo raises the question of whose nightmare wedding this one belongs to:
“bouquet of cacti wilting in my hand
while my closest friends…
stir the sickles in their drinks…
before I sign off on arguments
in the kitchen & the sight of him
fleeing to the car
once he sees how far & wide,
how dark & deep
this frigid female mind can go.
– from “Do You Speak Virgin?”
The virgin archetype with an awakened twist. Sotelo not only flips the Latinx’s view of women on its head but the accepted American view of femininity too. These poems make a reader confront their held beliefs of what being a woman means; a theme repeated throughout. She builds the juxaposition between the idea of the virgin against an awaken female figure with power and desire:
I once wanted is grilling
these beautiful peaches. He offers some—
I’m embarrassed. I try not
to touch his hand
I try to touch his hand.”
-from “Summer Barbeque with Two Men”
While Sotelo challenges the concepts surrounding femininity, she reweaves myths, folklore, and history, and she amalgamates her own story into them; giving a portrait of the self. Within the section “Pastoral,” many poems circle around a missing father, however Sotelo enhances this narrative with the use of Dalí, Giorgio, and Nietzsche to depict the absence and artistic characteristics of the father. Sotelo creates an emotional depth that can be understood by someone who might not be as familiar with these individuals through the use of color and other subtleties.
Similarly, in the section “Parable,” Sotelo takes her time to bring Frida Khalo, God, and the Minotaur into poems revolving around a mother figure. The balance of these figures gives the poem a chance to breathe without being overwhelmed. Sotelo has a gift for this as even in the section “Myth,” her wit runs with poems centered on Ariadne and Theseus: “Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man,” “Theseus at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 6 a.m.,” and “Ariadne Plays the Physician.” Other figures grace the pages of this book, and the reader begins to anticipate who will make the next appearance.
Both insightful and fun to read it’s of no surprise no surprise that Analicia Sotelo’s debut poetry collection Virgin was selected by Ross Gay for the inaugural Jake Adam York Prize for Poetry. Not to mention the recognition Sotelo’s previous work has received by Poetry Society of America National Chapbook Fellowship, 2016 DISQUIET International Literary Prize in poetry, and Best New Poets 2015. Imaginative and wonderful in sensory details Sotelo does not hold back in this debut; it yells: ¡Viva La Mujer!