Almost 30 years in the making, this collection of poems is to be savored. This latest book of Sandra Cisneros’ poetry is a gift. She didn’t need to share them with us as she explains:

“Just because I have a uterus, I don’t have to have a child, and just because I write poetry, I don’t have to publish it”(Murray).

True. But she did publish them and, again, they’re to be read over and over again, slowly, out loud, occasional gasps and laughter expected.

American Latina novelist and professor at Loyola Marymount School of Law, Yxta Maya Murray writes in her New Yorker interview with Sandra Cisneros:

“Cisneros’s fearlessness runs through “Woman Without Shame,” whose poems capture her solitude, erotic longings, and life in Mexico with rich language and sharp humor.”

For me, these poems act as an usher, ushering me wide-eyed into unexplored territory and with the timing of my read, guiding me into this New Year, over the threshold of a new and intriguing phase in my life as a woman.

The Poems

Cisneros’ poems invoke the familiar, tempt the moment, and package tomorrow as something our very own.

I’ll share parts of a few poems, but believe me, you do want a copy of Cisneros’ Women Without Shame to relish at will.

The book is divided into 5 sections. Section 3, Cantos y llantos [Songs and Cries] immediately captivated me. Here’s a peek into a poem from that section, “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto”:

I’d rather wear none
than ugly underwear made
for women of a certain age.

Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night
wearing sensible white or beige.

Women who have squash –
blossomed into soft flesh,
and grieve the frothy loss of the interior
garments of youth.

Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night
wearing sensible white or beige.

I interrupt this poem to share what Murray asks Cisneros:

Murray: Like Sharon Olds’s “Stag’s Leap,” “Woman Without Shame” interrogates the experience of being an older woman with desires. Does it feel like a taboo subject?

Cisneros: Yes! They castrate us by giving us ugly underwear. Somebody should give older women wonderful lingerie. For women who are older, there’s nothing flattering. Why can’t we wear beautiful things on our bodies, even what’s not seen? So that we walk as strong women, so that we come on stage feeling like, Hey, I’m a chingona! Powerful!

Elaborate undergarments that enhance our power, such as the ones Cisneros describes later in the poem:

In my imagination I create a holster
to pack my twin firearms. My 38-38’s.
A beautiful invention of oiled
Italian leather graced tobacco golden,
whip-stitched, hand-tooled
with Western roses and winged scrolls,
mother-of-pearl snaps
and nipples capped with silver aureoles. (83-84).

Wonder Woman’s attire has nothing on Cisneros’ “wonderful lingerie” that we desire and deserve as chingona! (Chingona is defined as “an intelligent, skilled, capable” woman, considered by some “too aggressive,” but by others, badass!)

The next section in the book is titled Cisneros sin censura (Cisneros without censor) where we encounter “Stepping on Shit”:

Look forward to the day
when I’m old enough
to not care.

At sixty-six, not there yet.
At sixty-six I watch the years
gather in the cenotes of my eyes,
in the theater drapery of the neck,
and – surprise! –
the dolphin pale underbelly
of my upper arms.

Trickster time arrived
while I slept.
It takes some getting used to.
I watch my transformation
bemused. Just as I once
watched myself alter into
my woman’s body. Watch
and marvel now as then.
Relieved to some degree.
Fascinated with where I am
traveling. (126-27).

The curiosity and a subtle but growing feeling of relief, an out-of-body experience so intimately ours. We may not be sure where we’re going, but with women like Cisneros as a travel companion, it feels even more okay than we suspect it will be.

The Power of Words

In the interview with Murray, Cisneros shares:

“I believe in the power of the word and the ability of writers to make change. This is the time when we should be saying, “O.K., let’s put the poets and writers in the front lines.” We need them to be peacemakers and truth-tellers, because people feel distrustful of church and politicians—what are the poets if not the truth-tellers? Poetry is meant to heal and transform people. It’s essential for that. We don’t know how to address the public after Uvalde or El Paso or Sandy Hook. We don’t know how to say, “Send in the poets,” just like you send in the Red Cross.”

No doubt that poetry is so often needed with its ability to “heal and transform.”

When it comes to the entrenched denial around aging, especially for women steeped in the youth and beauty myth, the process of growing older can be fraught with resistance and fear, which continues to strip women of their power. Cisneros’ Women Without Shame works to reveal and unravel this cultural delusion, situating us back in our bodies, doing much to restore our power, along with her own.

Statue of Coatlicue displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Wikipedia).

Two words Cisneros uses quite frequently in this collection are Coatlicue and transmogrify.

Coatlicue, the “Aztec earth goddess, symbol of the earth as both creator and destroyer, mother of the gods and mortals” is further described as:

“A woman wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace made of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Her feet and hands are adorned with claws and her breasts are depicted as hanging flaccid from pregnancy. Her face is formed by two facing serpents (after her head was cut off and the blood spurt forth from her neck in the form of two gigantic serpents), referring to the myth that she was sacrificed during the beginning of the present creation”(Wikipedia).

Murray questions Cisneros:

Murray: I noticed your house in San Miguel is called Casa Coatlicue.

Cisneros: I had to think of a name for my house. Well, what’s the goddess that really personifies a writer’s life? I couldn’t think of any goddess stronger than her.

Murray: In one poem you write, “It Occurs to Me I Am the Creative / Destructive Goddess Coatlicue.”

Cisneros: We’re all Coatlicue as women writers. I mean that we’re creative-destructive beings. For one thing, we have to be really furious to guard our time and space. She was that big square column of a goddess who was so horrific to the Spaniards that they unearthed her and then reburied her.

It appears Cisneros has unearthed Coatlicue again, not to be reburied but celebrated.

The word transmogrify means “to change in appearance or form, especially strangely or grotesquely” and its implication may be a better fit than the more common word, transform. Aging can certainly feel like shape-shifting in strange and unusual ways. We can be horrified. Terrified. Sad. And we can resist. But embracement and wonder might be our most potent way forward.

Happy New Year!

I’m taking Cisneros’ New Year’s advice from her poem “Having Recently Escaped from the Maws of a Deathly Life, I am Ready to Begin the Year Anew”:

For the New Year I will buy myself a chocolate éclair filled
with custard. Eat it slowly with an infinity of joy, without
concern of woe and tight underwear.

For my new year I will sit down in the sun and dunk in
my coffee a little knob of bread hard as my elbow, and on
it, without concern for cholesterol, I will spread delicious
butter, the kind that reminds me of Mexico City’s Café La
Blanca on Calle Cinco de Mayo, or the clinking glasses of El
Gran Café de la Parroquia in Veracruz(88).

May your New Year include éclairs and poetry to be savored!

Enjoy our other posts about Cisneros: Sandra Cisneros: Bridging Borders and The Good Stuff: Update on Woman Writer Sandra Cisneros.

Sandra Cisneros is a chingona and a #Nasty Woman Writer.

© Maria Dintino 2022

Works Cited

Cisneros, Sandra. Women Without Shame: Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.

Murray, Yxta Maya. “Sandra Cisneros May Put You in a Poem.” The New Yorker, 21 Sept 2022.