August 17, 2018KR Reviews

On Virgin by Analicia Sotelo

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. 112 pages. $16.00.

From the minor humiliations of modern dating to the mythic betrayals suffered by Ariadne and Persephone, Analicia Sotelo’s debut collection crosses time, place, real, and unreal to show us what it is to be heartbroken. It feels odd to say that a book about heartbreak is surprising and fun, but it is fun to skip through the range of personas in this book, personas that give quick-paced monologues full of ranging images and tones: Nietzsche, Skype, and “crinoline smoking in a fragrant fire” rub up against each other in these monologues, along with the foods and desert landscapes of Sotelo’s native South Texas, and artists and iconography from Latinx cultures.

It’s a collagist’s book in which an unexpected theme emerges, especially unexpected given the book’s title: Greek myth retold in present tense. Persephone, Theseus, Artemisia, and Dionysus all appear in monologues or as speakers this collection, and Ariadne is the subject of many of poems. Pairings chime across pages: the Virgin as Ariadne, the Pentecost as Bacchanalia, Purgatory as shipwreck on a Greek isle.

“South Texas Persephone,” a poem in which the speaker imagines herself as Persephone, her lover as Pluto, is an example of how this collection works with image, pacing, and theme:

Look now: my heart

is a fist of barbed wire. His heart
is a lake where young geese

go missing, show up bloody

after midnight. I don’t say
a single thing.

My dress is deep green, knotted

feathered at the seams.
O, isn’t this

What my mother never wanted?

The velocity of these short, enjambed lines might be dizzying if the images weren’t so concrete, the diction so simple (the primary images are all monosyllables: “heart,” “fist,” “wire,” “lake,” “green,” “seems,” “sex”), and the voice so certain. In many poems in Virgin, the speaker leaps between loosely coupled images, as she does here, creating this barreling forward velocity. Here, as in many of the “myth” poems in the book, one feels the pressure of the present tense bearing down on the ancient story, asking something from it—that it provide access to a past where rules were harsh, but crystal clear.

“Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man,” shows how the speaker can be just fluid and quick in longer, end-stopped lines. Ariadne’s love advice begins:

First, you must feel that no one could love you ever.
Let the feeling become a veil of black paper.
Let the paper become papier-mâché.
Make the mâché into marionette monsters.
Make the monsters fall in love and scold them
When they disappear down the hallway.
When your friends look for husbands
With muscles, horns, and hooves,
Make a face like you ate something tart,
Like their taste in men is beastly.
Grow up some, but not with your body.
The book you are reading is about a girl who rejects a god.
The book you are reading is about a girl no one believes.

It’s one thing to say that the speaker’s voice gives her subject an agility that’s entertaining to read. It’s another to say that the speed of these poems carries with it a meaning-making deeper than its surface pleasure. Why does this speaker, with her quick line breaks, fast imagination, and disjunctive tonal shifts, need to keep moving at breakneck speed? Why does she fluctuate between the real and the mythic, the now and the imagined past, the literal and the surreal? I think one answer is that the speaker is doing it all for our affection, acting out the gratifying persona she plays with her lovers. It is as if the reader were Theseus who would turn the white sail of the page and leave her behind. The speaker leans into this interpretation with poems addressed to the second person, and “Trauma with a Second Chance at Humiliation” is one such example.

To admit I love you would be to admit

I love ideas more than men,
myself even less than ideas.

. . .

What you don’t say is an iris
locked in a container.

What I don’t say is an iris
burning wildly over a pool of water.

I can feel the shadow meaning to the poem, Sotelo’s speaker looking directly at me.

Another possibility for the momentum of the book is that for this speaker, the cause of romantic dysfunction isn’t located in one person: it’s defuse and systematic. It’s the way things are. It’s a rule of the world. It’s fate. She keeps running simply because there’s nowhere to stop. Take the foreboding opening poem, “Do You Speak Virgin?,” where “the moon points out my neck line / like a chaperone” and “the stars are the arachnid eyes / of my mother-in-law: duplicitous, / ever-present in the dark.” Whatever the trouble is, it comes from above, where the laws of the universe are made. Adding to her sense of dislocation, none of the men in these poems are named; they seem separate, but from the same mold, recast over and over.

It makes sense then that the book occupies the realm of myth; Greek myths not only told why things are, but how things are: that we are flawed humans governed by destiny in a harsh world. What makes the Greek myths compelling these thousands of years later is the space they make in their paradigm of fate for free will; that tragedy arises from the string of choices we make, that prophecy is prophecy because it is self-fulfilling. Sotelo’s speaker is as responsible as anyone for her glittering loneliness, and I think in the very best poems in the collection, she knows it—as in “A Little Charm.”

Her moods are expensive. She’s all lit up.
Gentlemen order her whiskey and whiskey
And horses dip her gloves
Into the whiskey with their mouths.
They love her. They want to sweep her up
With their tongues until she learns to stand straight.
She never learns. I did not suspect I would like her.
I did not expect to give her
this loving little push out the door.

It’s interesting that a collection titled Virgin spends more time in the Greek tradition than the Christian one. Virgin does pull in Catholic imagery and ritual, but the women of ancient myth occupy much more of the speaker’s mind. To me, it felt as if the two women of this book, the Virgin and Ariadne, were a call and an answer. The Virgin opening the book with the question of faith, and Ariadne telling her story in response. Where faith lives in the same neighborhood as hope, telling us that the people we love will live forever, that our messy lives will fold together, origami-like, into a meaningful shape; fate sits crossways from us, confirming that death is death, that in the end, all we have is what we ever had. Reading Virgin, as the speaker dips down into myth again and again, it’s like she is trying to train faith out of herself, and out of us. She’s a tragedian in the ancient sense. As she says, “This mourning is mine forever.”

April Goldman-Sims
April Goldman-Sims's poetry most recently can be found in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Third Coast Magazine. She graduated from the University of Houston’s MFA program and has attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference.