‘Virgin’ is a vibrant debut poetry collection

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 12:00pm

Analicia Sotelo’s debut collection of poems, “Virgin,” the winner of the inaugural Jake Adam York Prize, offers a prismatic glimpse into the author’s personal experiences as a Mexican-American woman. The poems are iridescent — at times showing a detached critique of femininity, heterosexual relationships or both; at others, viscerally personal memories.

Lines that should be reminiscent of things like curtains and frothy champagne — “The moon points out my neckline like a chaperone,” she writes, in the first poem titled “Do You Speak Virgin?” — take on a keener edge in this collection, as she takes on the minutiae of societal poisoning of love and sex. “South Texas Persephone” ends with the speaker declaring “Now I have three heads: one / for speech, one for sex, / and one for second-guessing,” a triangulation which neatly encapsulates much of the rest of the volume.

Much of the first half of “Virgin” reveals an exasperation of watching people perform their relationships, hastening to use the first person plural as if it means something, clutching on to banalities like they’re lifelines. “We’re all performing our bruises,” she says in “Private Property,” and this sentiment is carried throughout.

The intensity of the collection is perhaps most vibrant when she captures the simultaneity of numbness and pain that comes from holding your tongue, mostly visible in the poems about her parents and in those about being close to our creations, like “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful.” Yet humor doesn’t take a backseat to potency; sincere words are often brushed over with irony — or at least an ambiguity addressed with an eye roll: “many people are tender from the right angle. / I’m hungry & confused. I love / a good barbecue. Save me.”

While some of the poems feel like puzzles that include more than a couple extra pieces, most are taut; The words slice to the core of her message. She writes of loving men — significantly older men, white men — as a traumatic experience. And she writes about her parents’ relationship. But she also warns against making the tired assumption, in a sly, if cutting, aside to the reader: “You may wish to make some connection / between father and lover here, as if your joke / could really be my life’s solution, or as if / I haven’t already done that, in a cuter way.”

In the latter half of the collection, Sotelo breathes new life into old Greek myths, giving perspectives that readers might not ever have considered otherwise. The most haunting of the set is “Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation to the Minotaur,” which leaves readers with the image of both Sotelo and Ariadne standing alone, man and monster gone, nothing but a lack of thread and answers in their outstretched hands.