Myths have a way of creeping up on you when you least expect them, be it while placing an order at Subway (Is that Dionysus behind the counter, asking what kind of cheese you want on your sandwich?) or sipping a margarita at a backyard barbecue with friends from school. (“Hey, where’d Persephone go? She was here a second ago, and just vanished!”). For 31-year-old San Antonio-born poet Analicia Sotelo, mythology—specifically Greek mythology—is indeed everywhere to be found, suffusing these very contemporary scenarios so vividly brought to life in her provocatively titled new collection of poetry, Virgin.
Sotelo is one of the most active and respected figures in Houston’s diverse, nationally recognized poetry scene. In addition to her role as director of communications and development for Writers in the Schools, where she helps to bring poetry workshops into the city's public schools, she is a co-organizer of the award-winning Poison Pen Reading Series, which takes place each month at Montrose's Poison Girl Cocktail Lounge. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review and New England Review, and her chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, which contains material that appears in Virgin, was published in 2016 by the Poetry Society of America. Virgin is Sotelo’s first collection of poetry, and on Saturday, February 17, she will give a reading at Brazos Bookstore.
The collection begins with an intense first-person prologue titled “Do You Speak Virgin?” where Sotelo, wandering the grounds at a hellish wedding reception with “a bouquet of cacti wilting in my hand,” identifies herself to the reader as the event’s token “Mexican American fascinator,” speaks of a murderer hiding “in the bushes with an antique mirror,” and imagines her future lover (or husband?) fleeing into the night when he sees “how dark & deep / this frigid female mind can go.” And that’s just the first three pages.
For Sotelo, the book’s virginal narrator is an “autobiographical mythical persona,” a sort of mask she wears while exploring her childhood and journey to womanhood. “A big impetus for the book's title is that people use the word very reductively,” Sotelo says. “No one really uses the word casually, and if they do, they use it as an insult.”
The book’s other main protagonist is King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who was unceremoniously dumped by the otherwise heroic Theseus after having saved him from being devoured by the Minotaur in its labyrinth. “When a man tells you he’s a monster,” writes Sotelo, “believe him.”
Theseus appears later in her poem “Death Wish” as the archetypical boyfriend from hell, “bleeding from his head to his hands / like Christ without clear cause,” listening to Kanye West “on a loop,” and being a general pain in the ass. (“Death Wish” was published by The New Yorker in 2016.)
Along with these refugees from Ancient Greece, a few dead artists pop up in the pages of Virgin, specifically Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico, who Sotelo casts as friends of her father.
“I have this theme of an absent biological father in the book,” explains Sotelo, “ and I use famous artists who are now dead as mythological figures who knew my dad. My parents were very into the visual arts, so a lot of conversations I had with my father, who I didn’t see very much, were about artists. So how do I access someone who I didn’t know very well? Well, how about through the art that he taught me about?”
Meanwhile, in “My Mother as the Voice of Frida Kahlo,” a teenage Sotelo is told by her mother “Women don’t / choose work over love / but it’s not the same for men.” The poem comes to the unnerving conclusion that “an artist / will leave his wife behind / but he can’t / if she runs harder / if she’s both / hunter & sacrifice.”
Though far from being a feminist polemic, Virgin nevertheless pulls no punches when it comes to deconstructing toxic masculinity. But Sotelo’s writing also embraces ambiguity, and all the inevitable messiness that comes with lust, love and self-discovery. Just how much the personal aligns with the political is up to the reader to decide.
“If political conversation has a point, then a book of poetry, at least the kind of poetry I write, doesn’t really have that clear of a message,” says Sotelo. “But the fact that Virgin makes the female Latina identity across time complex and intellectual is the part in which I have a message.”