A Love Letter to the Imperfect Self in “Women Without Shame” – Chicago Review of Books

American Book Award-winning author Sandra Cisneros has had a decades-long career publishing both prose and poems, and is perhaps most well known for her first book, The House on Mango Street, a novel told in vignettes. She often mixes Spanish and English, putting to words the in-betweenness of her dual U.S.-Mexico citizenship. 

Woman Without Shame is her first book of poetry in twenty-eight years. Cisneros begins the book’s acknowledgements by saying, “It seems the success of my fiction in my lifetime has overshadowed the fact that I was once a poet. I still am.”

She admits she has to write poetry as if it will never get published. It can be uncomfortable sharing so deeply in work other people will read. Her supporters and friends have “poked under the bed with brooms” to bring out never-before-seen poems for the new collection. She says, “In seventeen days I will be sixty-seven. It is time to let them go.”

The book does feel like an exhalation. Cisneros candidly ticks through past lives and lovers with an approach that isn’t concerned with what people will think, especially about her decision not to have children. In a poem called “Woman Seeking Her Own Company,” the narrator lists one of her anathemas as “babies,” reminding us that being childless is a preference, not a tragedy. Instead, she views her home as “the sum of a woman’s / life creating.”

The collection’s opener recounts the narrator’s days going to a “boy bar,” where:

danced with me.

I danced with

The entire
Every song.

She could become a “woman without shame” when she was among friends who only found each other attractive—she being the only woman there. Her placement of this poem, from which she extracted the book’s title, could be taken as Cisneros delicately pointing to a culture where a lack of child rearing and even marriage is both acceptable and logical.

Another way Cisneros is unapologetic in these pages is how she describes her body as she ages, not without wit. She says she’s “wide as a tule tree,” and becoming like Chichén Itzá or Coatlicue, the earth-mother Aztec goddess who is usually represented in artworks as a mix between a monster and an old woman. Yet she admits, “I like myself best / without clothes when / I can admire myself / as God made me, still / divine as a maja.”

As in her former works, Cisneros masters scene-setting, and story, usually with a humorous angle. In “Smith’s Supermarket, Taos, New Mexico, at the Fifteen-Items-or-Less Checkout Line,” she narrates:

The baby-faced cholo in front of me
gently drops a divider bar between
what’s his and mine.

On my side, a six-outlet surge
protector for my computer,
and a fireproof glass cup
for my Lux Perpetua candle,
a votive so powerful
it self-destructs.

On his,
a plastic bottle of store-brand vodka.
It’s noon, but somewhere
it’s happy hour.

She also masters detail and depth in few words, especially in her quieter poems like “Sky Wearing a Hat,” “Calendar in the Season of the Pandemic,” or “Poem Written at Midnight.” She’s learned to embrace mistakes instead of apologizing, almost treating them as accidental truths. For instance, from the poem “Figs”:

And when
the acupuncturist
tells me—
El hígado enamorado
quiere decir
el cuerpo está sano.
The liver in love
means the body is healthy—

I mistake
for fig—higo.

I prefer my translation.

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All’s right with the world
when figs are in love.

Woman Without Shame is a glorious tribute to Cisneros herself as an artist, celebrating the reality of her past and present, however it may look to other people. It’s not always clear who these judgmental spectators are, but it’s easy to speculate: other women, other writers, family members, readers, men.

One standout is “You Better Not Put Me in a Poem,” through which the narrator recounts many different lovers by describing each of their habits, desires, physical characteristics, age, occupation, penis shape, or dialogue. It’s a bit of an “eff you” to a man from her past, we learn at the end, who asked her never to put him in a poem as he unzipped his tight jeans and shucked off his cowboy boots.

But Cisneros isn’t so much standing up to past lovers as she is expressing that she no longer cares. She’s lived and loved, she’s published, and won awards, and founded nonprofits. She’s content in her solitude with her dogs and books.

A memorable line from the same poem perhaps encapsulates one of Cisneros’s lifelong predicaments, which serves her well as she gets older, it turns out:

I was/am/always will be a romantic.

Which is the same as saying: I fall in love all by myself.

A love letter to the imperfect self, Woman Without Shame is brave and beautiful.

Woman Without Shame
by Sandra Cisneros
Published September 13, 2022

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