“Woman Without Shame” Showcases Sandra Cisneros at the Height of Her Power

I had the pleasure of learning about poetry from Cathy Smith Bowers, former poet laureate of North Carolina, during my graduate creative writing program. She spoke frequently about the “abiding image,” which she defined in an SRB interview:

I believe that when we read poems, we explore someone else’s abiding image. It’s as if that person has pitched a tent and said, “Come inside. Sit with me for a while.” In this way, we, too, get to experience their image — in mind, body, and heart.

If I were to name the abiding image of Sandra Cisneros’ new poems in Woman Without Shame, I would say it’s the Aztec goddess Coatlicue (pronounced koh-at-lee-kway). In one poem, Cisneros plainly states her identification with Coatlicue: “It Occurs to Me I Am the Creative/Destructive Goddess Coatlicue.” It doesn’t get more explicit than that.

Coatlicue was a major female deity in the Aztec pantheon, associated with birth and rebirth, a symbol of the earth as both creator and destroyer, a mother of gods and mortals. She was often represented as an imposing old woman with claws on her hands and feet; pendulous breasts from pregnancy; a necklace made of human hands, hearts, and skulls; and a skirt made from snakes or serpents. She was both respected and fearsome.

For me, Cisneros’ poems, taken together, celebrate the poet herself as Coatlicue, as a woman “of a certain age,” as a consumer of life, a creator of art, and as a force to be reckoned with — formidable and unapologetic. This is a woman at the height of her power, a woman who is honest, authentic, and self-accepting. As a memoirist, I couldn’t help but admire these blunt poems.

Cisneros is the bestselling author of the modern classic The House on Mango Street, a novel told in a series of vignettes about Esperanza Cordero, a young, impoverished Latina girl growing up in Chicago. Cisneros writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. This is her first poetry collection in nearly three decades.

Woman Without Shame comprises more than 50 relatively short, lyrical poems divided across four parts or sections: “Woman without Shame,” “Sky Without a Hat,” “Singing and Crying,” and “Cisneros Uncensored.” Many incorporate Spanish words and titles, and are deeply cognizant of both Mexican and American culture, and they touch on a variety of subjects, including religion, politics, violence, nature, love, sex, aging, and death. Mostly, they are about womanhood, and about the author’s esteem for herself as both a woman and as an artist.

From the beginning I was taken by Cisneros’ use of surprising metaphors and rhythms. In the very first poem, “Tea Dance, Provincetown, 1982,” which contains the title of the collection in its lines, the narrator writes of her lover:

He was a skittish kite, that one.
Kites swerve and swoop and whoop.
Only a matter of time, I knew.
Apropos, I called him
“my little piece of string.”
And that’s what kites
leave you with in the end.

In “Te A—” town folk disappear “like wallets plucked from / Costco customers’ pockets.” Also in “Te A—,” the poet rhythmically observes: “A boy and a girl embrace, kiss / within the triangle of my parking / space.” The poet makes abundant use of repetition in addition to rhyme — repetition of vowel sounds, consonant sounds, whole phrases and sentences — to enhance the musicality of her poetry, many of which are songs, incantations, prayers. In the political and harrowing poem “El Hombre,” in between narrations of crime and violence committed by men, she repeats: “Mándanos luz. Send us all light.” These poems really should be read aloud.

There is repetition as well in one of the most humorous poems in the collection, “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” after Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The poem bemoans the lack of sexy underwear for older women:

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.

This canto also exemplifies the poet’s playfulness: “For what lies beyond XL or 36C is / the antithesis of intimacy.” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at this. And in another: “He is not my ex, / Nor my y, nor even my z.”

I especially enjoyed her poems about aging in her body and about sex. In “Washing My Rebozo By Hand,” she washes her rebozo (shawl) while wearing it in the shower: “The wet rebozo conforms to my skin / like dough draped over my empanada belly, / eggplant breasts, Coatlicue ass.” In “You Better Not Put Me in a Poem,” Cisneros compares a penis to a “long curved scimitar like a Turkish moon,” a “fat tamale plug,” a “baby pacifier.”

Perhaps the poem “Stepping on Shit” best reflects the feel, the gestalt, of these poems for me. The voice of the narrator in this poem is that of a woman who has “arrived”:

I read while
the new pups
yap in the garden.

Relieved wherever
my steps take me.

Dólares or dolores.

Accept whatever
is on my path.

The narrator, and one presumes, Cisneros herself — a woman of a certain age, a writer — is content in her solitude, in love with her memory, bemused by her lived-in body, captivated by her present, and fascinated by her future.

Woman Without Shame: Poems
By Sandra Cisneros
Alfred A. Knopf
Published September 13, 2022