S (Reprise and Surprise) is for Sotelo – Watching Men and Women Performing Their Wounds – Poems from VIRGIN by Analicia Sotelo

American Mexican poet Analicia Sotelo

Private Property

In this minor emergency of the self,
We drink to become confused,
To swim in the dark like idiot fish.

This is a lake at night in a forest.

This is where we look up at the stains
In the sky and someone says, It’s purpling out here,
And someone else says, Someone write that down.

We’re all performing our bruises.

Chloe smiles like a specialty knife,
Bea tells stories like a bubbly divorcee,
Clara smokes like a sage in her coiffed towel,
expertly naked, third eye shining.

I hang back on the shore with Kyle.
We talk about his man in New York
while our skinny-dipping sirens
sing show tunes in the violet dark.

Later we’re all in a clinic at 3 a.m.
handling Kyle’s broken ankle.
It’s so embarrassing , he keeps saying.

And it is: earlier doing the sprinkler
in a dorm room to Please Don’t Stop the Music,
he kept yelling, Stop the music! Stop the music!
until we understood: he wasn’t actually joking.

And sometimes the poems were like that.
When we wrote knife, bubbly, naked,
we were really getting down,
dancing hard on the injury.

Analicia Sotelo from VIRGIN, Milkweed editions, 2018

These days I am drawn to challenging poetic voices that live outside a safe mainstream cultural center. It could be LGBTQ voices, male or female, or men or women with disabilities or non-white voices (also male or female) saying these are my realities, not those of the mainstream. These voices saying be careful of what you get used to. It may be built on false assumptions or foundations.

One such voice is that of American Mexican poet and educator Analicia Sotelo whose 2018 poetry collection, VIRGIN, was picked by black American poet Ross Gay as the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize for a first or second collection of poems by an American poet. This book sings a saw-like song cutting up all sorts of cultural assumptions especially about women. And her saw is sharp and savvy. Sher looks underneath to where the bruises, the injuries, the wounds are!

I have been sitting with her poem Private Property for some weeks now, so amazed at what complexity she adds to a scene of kids hanging out in a dorm, hanging out a lake and ending up in hospital. But there is so much more going on. There a psychological take going on that look beneath the surface. And she wields images like swords.

In this minor emergency of the self,
We drink to become confused,
To swim in the dark like idiot fish.

What an arresting first poetic line! To capture the whys and wherefores of what I imagine are university kids having a party-kind of night. Do the characters in this poem have any idea what the speaker is seeing? Sotelo says this in her PBS interview:

[There’s] much more to a person’s life than what we assume about them and I think that’s really the core of why I write,” she said. Who are we really as humans and how do we really relate to each other? What are we assuming? What surprises us?

But to be surprised while looking through the eyes of a speaker that can say this astonishing line, one of the most arresting lines of poetry I have come across in years!

We’re all performing our bruises.

I am gobsmacked by this line. How would I see the world around me if I saw it this way? How much more tender might I be. How I might still stand up for myself and not take some altercation or disagreement so personally. To think this is a bruise talking, an injury, a wound.

And that remarkable last stanza. What does the poet really know outside of what her injuries might tell her. Is Chloe really smiling like a specialty knife? Lovely image but is it true? Is Bea telling stories like a bubbly divorcee? I imagined so until the last stanza. Starting when I read that unexpected “we”, perhaps the poem and the writer together. And then the understanding that the challenging words, knife, bubbly, naked come right out of the writer’s own injury. Subjective not objective.

And sometimes the poems were like that.
When we wrote knife, bubbly, naked,
we were really getting down,
dancing hard on the injury.

With a speaker like this who admits their complicity how can I not be drawn into their lyrical stories.? To understand the speakers may be a tad unreliable. How delicious. But also the deliciousness of a speaker wise enough to feel her own injury. To know her own unreliability.

And this psychological awareness permeates the book as it forcibly challenges and highlights reductive thinking of female stereotypes. Such as virgins. As in to not under-estimate them or think you even know what a virgin is. In an interview in March, 2018 with PBS Newshour Sotelo is said to define in her terms a virgin as someone who is assumed to be either religious or unfamiliar with the ways of the world.

I tend to have a very nice demeanor, and so when I meet people and start talking to them, a lot of people would assume that I didn’t know things simply because I came from a Catholic background…That made me want to show what the inside of my brain was like in a poetic fashion.

Well if the speakers she makes up in her brain are any indication of what goes on there that brain is something to reckon with. And she and her speakers may be a lot more worldly wise than some of us readers might be comfortable with. Such as this speaker from this exscerpt from the poem Do You Speak Virgin?

The virgins are here to prove a point.
The virgins are here to tell you to fuck off.

The virgins are certain there’s a circle of hell
dedicated to that fear you’ll never find anyone else.

You know what it looks like:

all the lovers cloaked in blood
and salt and never satisfied,

a priest collar like a giant tooth
in the midnight sky.

I want to know what’s coming in the afterlife

before I sign off on arguments
in the kitchen, and the sight of him

fleeing to the car

once he sees how far and wide,
how dark and deep

this frigid female mind can go.

Analicia Sotelo from Do You Speak Virgin from VIRGIN, ibid

No frigid virgins here. Or frigid minds! As a man how do I feel about this poem? It challenges me, my assumptions. How seriously do I take or treat the women in my life. Do I run away or do I venture into the dark and deep and find, not monsters, but treasures there.

And oh, how her poems give voice to kick-ass female speakers. Some are of well- known historical or mythical figures like Freida Kahlo or Ariadne central to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minataur. But none of the speakers in her book, known or unknown play by the status quo rule book. Where men can be dangers to be avoided or dealt with. Not trusted.

Here is Adriadne talking about Theseus:

Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation
to the Minotaur
When a man tells you he’s a monster,
believe him.

        When a man says
you will get hurt,

leave. Get into
a boat,          out

onto a sea that everyone owns.

                                      Who cares.

he touched the curls of his hair
before touching mine.

I didn’t question him   until all the thread was gone.
Analicia Sotelo from VIRGIN, ibid 

Oof. This voice that cuts like a knife. That sees the narcissist! And this voice.

My Mother as the Voice of Kahlo

I am fourteen & feeling ugly
looking at a unibrow
like the one I’d like to get rid of

when my mother says

Yes                it’s supposed to be a bird
See                she did it on purpose
See                she didn’t care

what people thought of her
only    what they were made of
which animals     were inside & why

Here                 she’s a stag in mid-leap

with nine arrows in her body
            alive   bleeding

Her grief is constant & irreparable

like the crown of fresh flowers
she killed   each day

See   the instinct for painting is the instinct for power

Women don’t
choose work over love
but it’s not the same for men

See   all men are in love with themselves
Like Diego      & your father

& even an artist
will leave his wife behind

but he can’t         if she runs harder
if she’s both        hunter & sacrifice

Analicia Sotelo from VIRGIN, ibid

So much of Kahlo in this poem. Some of her images. Yet so much more.Using Kahlo and her story to look at universal statements like this: Women don’t/ choose work over love/ but it’s not the same for men. Agree or disagree it’s provocative. And I can cite many cases where this is true! So Sotelo doesn’t lose me. Does she lose you? I am being shown life through a very different lens! And I think of the times when I was away for work two weeks a month for months! Hmmmm.

As I read Sotelo’s poems, this one especially, I get that I am hearing a speaker’s voice. They get to say what they say. I don’t have to take it on and say no, that’s not right. Not all men are this way. I get to wonder: are some men this way. For sure. Are most men? I hope not? Am I? Something good to think about.

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