Returning to the “shell”—on Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin

“It wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t the shell I was after.”


So ends Analicia Sotelo’s “I’m Trying to Write a Poem About a Virgin and It’s Awful,” selected by Tracy K. Smith for Best New Poets 2015. Sotelo’s first full-length collection, Virgin, pursues and rediscovers the “shell,” the heart of her, her “life’s solution.” Though each poem contrasts in structure, style, and tone—some lines treading gently into an imagined conversation, others carrying a foreboding, dormant energy like a loaded gun; all resonating sonically: “a moth wrecked in specks of sarcophagus black” (from “The Minotaur Invents the Circumstances of His Birth”)—they altogether form a narrative arc revealing a lone girl making sense of the people she constantly repositions like chess pieces in her life. An absent father; an encouraging mother; anonymous men who draw her in, proposing not only marriage, but also how she should feel about her situation. Sotelo’s speaker—sometimes cast as mythical weaver Ariadne, sometimes eavesdropper witnessing Salvador Dali and Nietzsche come to life—incorporates religious tradition and Greek mythology and channels their purpose of reinventing the past to interpret the present.

The opening poem “Virgin” invites the reader into the speaker’s explosive psyche, daring and defiant. “I am not afraid of sex,” she states, teasing the lover to see “how far & wide, / how dark & deep / this frigid female mind can go.” She calls into question the idea that lack of sexual experience denotes lack of passion, lack of power. For Sotelo’s speaker sensuously considers the world around her, in literal and figurative Taste (the title of the first section) as she samples both ancho chile pork ribs and lustful thirty-something-year-old men. The virgin, “eyes wide as money” and legs “like unfiltered honey,” has fun with the innocent persona that she is meant to (and refuses) to adopt. In “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs,” she sets up the poem with a joke: “A man walks into my kitchen in athletic shorts. / That’s the joke—a man, in my kitchen.” It’s not a lighthearted tease, however, recalling the question from “Apologia over Marinated Lamb”: “Where were you / when I was naked, offering / a thousand dinners in my tiny kitchen?” and anticipating the bold implication of the unknown “you” in “Father Fragments (or, Yellow Ochre)”: “You may wish to make some connection / between father and lover here, as if your joke / could really be my life’s solution ...” The speaker unapologetically recognizes the link between her relationships with any man in her life: father, lovers. She “drags the yolk right out of him.”

Sotelo’s second section “Revelation” takes a step further back in the timeline. Here, the speaker chronicles her sexual awakening, at one time Persephone, at one time the biblical shepherd making sense of sheep and goats. In the poem in which she tries in vain to capture the virgin, Sotelo literally positions her “at the edge of the lake,” a mythical motif she weaves throughout her poems as the landscape for self-discovery. Echoing Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier, the virgin submerges herself in the “lake that was not a lake,” enjoying the feeling of “being bare and naïve,” though, the reader, too, questions the syntax of these words—if the lake is not really a lake, are “bare” and “naïve” really what the virgin suggests? The speaker doubts this. In fact, her poem shifts into a metacritique, incorporating voices, like those in a creative writing workshop, that suggest she remove the virgin or remove the lake—the “state of mind”—and “put her in a bedroom.” Sotelo’s speaker does neither; instead, she magnifies the site of water and self-discovery by positioning her virgin in the rush of sea. This virgin, for whom “the best shadows always look like the worst kinds of men,” isn’t the shell she wants. This begs the question, what is?

The speaker searches even further back in the third section, “Humiliation.” Recounting the traumas that took place in stairwells (in the title of one poem but recurring in several) and with her encounters with men, the speaker is sometimes demure, sometimes defiant, even taking the shape of Judith considering the beheading of her lover Holofernes. In each poem she is a girl juxtaposed against a man, but it is the girl who holds the power in the figurative beheading: “I’ll turn you / into something else, a footnote / of a person” (“Trauma with a Second Chance at Humiliation”). A few stanzas later, she confesses, “I love ideas more than men, / myself even less than ideas.” The idea of the speaker’s father, for instance, comes into play in the fourth section, “Pastoral,” in which she inverts the concept of a halcyon, bucolic scene by resurrecting an otherwise absent father. “I am not afraid to go back in time,” her second bold assertion, and so she draws even closer to the origin of her trauma, her life’s solution. The speaker reinvents memories of her father with conversations with different artists, but her longest and most solid poem of him is also structurally fragmented. In “Father Fragments,” she compares him to her heartbeat, “that original invisible companion,” drawing on the religious refrain throughout her poems of an invisible—and seemingly absent—heavenly father as well. In the fragments she returns to her empowerment, recalling the “yolk” that she can drag out of each man, the tender memories of football games with her father, the room where he left her, “the idea of room ... the idea of father / the absence of room.” For the real father denounces her as conventional, but the speaker proves in retrospect that she is anything but.

The following sections use storytelling rhetoric to interpret the past and present. The speaker in the “Myth” poems, Ariadne, confronts her Theseus and the power play between them; while the speaker in the “Parable” poems returns to the mother, who is in harmony with the figures of the past. “My Mother as the Voice of Kahlo” and “My Mother as the Face of God” empowers her daughter, whereas her father, who does not agree with Dali, reduces her to conventionality.

Though the seventh and final section, “Rest Cure” (echoing God’s rest on the seventh day), reconciles the recasting and reinterpreting of the previous sections, the speaker has long ago discovered the site of discovery, her life’s solution, her shell. It is in the scatter of father fragments, when she, no longer afraid of the past, no longer afraid of sex, returns to the room. She realizes it was the room that frightened her, not her father ... “because the room was art itself / and I knew my father would always come back to it, / just as I would always come back to this room, this window.” The frigid female mind returns to the place of her origin, her shell, emerging like the birth of Venus in an empowered reinvention of herself; as she summons a séance of the past, knowing her father would return. Analicia Sotelo’s speaker boldly meets him there.


Shannon Nakai is an MFA graduate of Wichita State University, a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Tupelo Quarterly, 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems, River City Poetry, The Bacopa Literary Review, and others. A Fulbright Scholar and English instructor, she currently lives and teaches in Wichita, KS.