Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
Milkweed Editions, 2018. 112 pp.
Reviewed by Chloe Martinez
Sometimes you have to look backwards to see clearly where you are. In her debut collection, Virgin, Analicia Sotelo draws on personal and family histories, Greek mythology, and Victoriana, inhabiting and enlivening past worlds to show us how we live now. These poems are entrancing in their skillful movement between the surreal, the mythic and the darkly comic; in Sotelo’s hands, series of lines becomes series of tonal and contextual transformations:
Why does the twenty-first century feel like this?
Like men are talking into
their favorite phonograph
& the phonograph is me
receiving their baritone: You’re so exotic…
(“My English Victorian Dating Troubles”)
The antique phonograph becomes the contemporary speaker, and in turn reveals the contemporary female experience to be not-so-distant from that of Victorian England. In this poem and many others, Sotelo implies that our troubles are ancient, not new.
The book’s seven short sections modulate, rather than divide, the book’s major themes of sexual desire/threat/anxiety, the male gaze, and parental loss/abandonment. There are vivid characters here: the single woman adrift among self-satisfied couples; the flirtatious teacher at the all-girls’ school; Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur as a dysfunctional family. The poems of the central section (“Pastoral”) deal with an absent artist father, and Sotelo puts him in dialogue with Surrealist painters Dalí and De Chirico. There’s humor in that choice, but it’s also true that an absent parent is surreal, which is to say, both familiar and completely mysterious:
Enter Dalí. At first, he does not see
my father because Dalí is Dalí,
waltzing in from 1963 with his ocelot
to whom he only speaks French…
“Leave,” says my father. “I am working.”
(“My Father & Dalí Do Not Agree”)
These poems are so agile, they almost make it look easy—the transformations of everyday objects into talismans, the voice that shifts from funny to anguished to ironic to threatening. It’s not easy, though; what Sotelo has done here is masterful. Reading Virgin, you won’t need Sotelo to tell you she’s in control, but sometimes she’ll tell you anyway, beautifully:
This is my humid kingdom, blades of bobby pins in my hair.
What do I care if I’m here with a stranger?
Like my father in the mirror in the middle of the night?
(“Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs”)
Chloe Martinez's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Waxwing, The Normal School, The Collagist, PANK, and The Common. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a semifinalist for the 2018 Perugia Prize and a reader for The Adroit. She is the Program Coordinator for the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College, as well as Lecturer in Religious Studies. See more at www.chloeAVmartinez.com.