Sandra Cisneros’s 1991 books My Wicked Wicked Ways was one of the first collections I read seriously as poetry outside of class. This was early high school — at about the same time Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath were big for me. (Cisneros is of course the author of The House on Mango Street, which I also love and think everyone should read.)
I picked it up My Wicked Wicked Ways again recently and I still love some of these poems, just love. You always have these vague ideas, early on, about who poets are, what kind of person a poet can be, should be. I don’t know if this was true for everyone but for me Sexton and Plath, the crazy suicidal confessionists, or Dickinson the recluse in a white dress were sort of the readily available models when I was first getting going in poetry seriously, in terms of how to be a female poet. Sexton, Plath, Dickinson — or Sandra Cisneros, precise and beautiful and sometimes sad but also always so alive and full of beautiful images and style.
I love the plain poems in this collection (deceptively plain — the “kid” tone always buoyed by a brilliant and adult undertone of insight), as in “Muddy Kid Comes Home.” It begins, “And Mama complains / Mama whose motto / Is mud must remain […].” Mud must remain — she never actually says mud should stay out of the house, it’s just that word ‘remain.’ Remain where it is, remain what it is. The same Mama who “Says mud can’t come in / Says mud must stay put” also says that “Mud is uncouth.” What a beautiful use of unexpected diction in this kid/sing-song setup. And the rhythm of that line makes you savor the word, really hit the “un” and overpronounce the “-couth.”
The speaker then says, “Mud’s what I was / When I wasn’t at all” which sounds like just a kid sort of statement, but there’s a lot going on there — mud is what you were before you were born, and now it can’t come in to the house…there’s also, in the last couplet, “Mama who cannot / Remember her name” something hovering around the saying ‘your name is mud’ too.
Two ideas braided into a lot of these poems are “the what you wanted but didn’t get” to quote from “Curtains,” and the what you didn’t want but got, or more specifically what your family wanted but didn’t get. Poems like “I the Woman” and “Love Poem #1” offer self-definitions, which I love,
in the veins
and good skin
and sharp tooth
hard lip pushed
no stopping me
and “a red flag / woman I am / all copper / chemical.”
There are poems of lovers, a whole section called The Rodrigo Poems, frank in their assessment of how, when and where the people involve connect and don’t, for instance a lover’s gestures, what they were meant to mean, and what they mean, as in the end of “I understand it as a kiss,”
You mean the Buenos Aires moon,
the blond streetlamps,
the dance you danced.
But I know it as the wrist,
a shoe, a bruise,
a bone, a stick.
I thought in high school that “The world without Rodrigo” was one of the best in-that-kind-of-love love poems, and still do. The world without Rodrigo “moves / at a slender pace” and “walks does not run / hums.” The next poem on the facing page, a description of laundry outside on the line in the wind, is titled “Rodrigo Returns to the Land and Linen Celebrates.”
And then there are the amusing poems, such as the musing on the attraction of Michaelangelo’s David’s “Ass.”
Did I say derriere?
Derriere too dainty.
Buttocks much too bawdy.
Cheeks so childishly petite.
Buns, impudently funny.
Rear end smacking of collision.
I’ve tried but never written ‘travel poems’ quite like hers, which get across the small, wonderful scenes you see and experience when you travel, especially solo, like “Beautiful Man — France,” a small poem about seeing a beautiful man at a cafe, but the speaker can’t see without her glasses, so she asks the woman next to her. “Yup, she says, he’s beautiful.” But the speaker doesn’t believe her, and goes over to the beautiful man to see for herself. And he is, indeed beautiful. And she speaks to him a little. “You are beautiful, I say, / No two ways about it. / He says beautifully, Merci.” Isn’t that the perfect being-in-France poem? “Ladies, South of France—Vence,” “Hydra Night—House on Fire,” “Hydra Coming Down in Rain,” they make me long to travel again.
And how I love how well the voice comes alive in the first stanza of “For a Southern Man,” in the first two lines and then beyond,
Bill, I don’t do laundry
and I don’t believe in love.
I believe in bricks.
And broken windshields.
And maybe my fist.
But you’re safe to take
the road this one time, buddy.
I’m getting old.
Her poems are full of character like that, fully realized women I’d like to know. As I said to start, these poems, this poet were an early hint that you could be a female poet and not be institutionalized crazy. I didn’t really turn out to be a don’t do laundry don’t believe in love type of woman, which honestly I’m still a little disappointed about, but I still hope to write like Sandra Cisneros in My Wicked Wicked Ways.
And there is one way I did grow up to be just like her. “The Poet Reflects on Her Solitary Fate,” begins “She lives alone now” and after listing who isn’t there (family, stray lovers) and what is (“They have left her / to her own device. / Her nightmares and pianos”) the poem ends, “The house is cold. / There is nothing on TV. / She must write poems.”