Laura Villareal Reviews Wendy Guerra’s “Delicates,” translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Esperanza Hope Snyder

Nov 2, 2023 | Bubbler

72 pages | ISBN-13‏: ‎978-1803091662 | Seagull Books | Publication Date: June 2023

Many idioms are untranslatable from language to language. “Don’t air our dirty laundry” or “La ropa sucia se lava en casa” travels across many boundaries. The common idiom is also a pervasive attitude of the Cuban government. Airing the country’s “dirty laundry” such as speaking or writing in political opposition is prohibited under the authoritarian government. Journalistic and creative freedom are heavily repressed so it isn’t any wonder why many prominent Cuban writers like Wendy Guerra write in exile. The Spanish title Ropa Interior (underwear) is a clever way of signaling she will be airing the most sensitive and secretive of dirty laundry. The English translation, Delicates, chosen by translating duo Nancy Naomi Carlson and Esperanza Hope Snyder embodies the same sentiment but also connotes the sensuality that Guerra’s poems evoke. Guerra may be free of Cuba’s restrictions while living in the United States, but she is still a woman living in a heteropatriarchal country where female pleasure and sexuality is policed and often treated as taboo. Though the original Spanish edition was published in 2008, it is difficult to not read the translation through the lens of our current post-Roe era. The fight for bodily autonomy is even more important than ever.

Delicates aligns with a lineage of women writers in Cuba who wrote about female sexuality and the body. Guerra revels in what many women are told to keep secret. She writes with unabashed reclamation of the body and of pleasure. Her poems often feel surveilled, steeped in tension between enjoying the gaze and being repulsed by it. “Breaking Crystal Dragonflies” exemplifies the speaker’s revulsion:

I already know they are reading my Diaries   but I take them with me   I write

from memory

They dig their hands into my delicates as if touching my sex    they violate my

      word      silence it

As if breaking dragonflies    they inspect my garments   turn my past upside down

You don’t walk by    nor enter    nor go to your house    hello and goodbye   already

      your house is not yours

I ask permission to show my naked body in the drawings    it’s me on paper

The glass of my tears     Cuba under my skirt

With every turn of the poem, the sense of violation and assault intensifies. Home, an underwear drawer, and a diary are sacred spaces where privacy is expected —and yet the speaker knows she cannot have any. She even feels as if she must ask permission to show her naked body. Guerra shifts from “I” to “you” to pull the reader into the situation. The experience still belongs to the speaker, but “Your house is not yours” cleverly makes the line between speaker and reader invisible enough that deep empathy and possibly fear is established. Then we turn back to the specifics of the speaker with a summation of these violations, “Cuba under my skirt.”

Violence and sexuality are inextricably linked in this collection. Readers become complicit in the surveillance of the speaker whether they like it or not. The titular poem, “Delicates,” reads as a reclamation of autonomy, a celebration of sex, and a resistance to surveillance. In contrast to “Breaking Crystal Dragonflies,” it seems to delight in being watched: 

In the showers of men we leave our bodies

tied well to the solar pipes

We mark our territory like animals in heat

our panties saturated with sand and a sidereal isolating odor

Remains of the sex we had yesterday left behind in the bathrooms

rose water and wax drippings from vanilla-scented candles

Broken tears in the profane lace of dawn

My earrings have disappeared     lost in the soap of a brief lust 

and Sir   the creams anoint your sheets    like venom from silvered goddesses

Look how we snatch freedom from their minds

The “we” (which reads as a nosism) have invaded the “showers of men” and claimed the space as their own. Contrasting sensory images like “sidereal isolating odor,” “saturated panties,” “vanilla-scented candles” permeate the poem. Such descriptions replicate the sensation of voyeurism. Perhaps even prudish embarrassment may be evoked upon reading, but the voice of the poem is undeniably confident in its description of the erotic and knows it. “Look how we snatch freedom from their minds” distills the tone of self-possession. So perhaps her last name Guerra is apt, she is waging a war on our (dis)comfort. 

As the poem continues, the sense of anxiety and danger that threads the book returns. Lines such as: “I am my writing and what I try to hide that might not survive / delicates in another bathroom’s bottle,” “Only in delicates   do I manage to save myself,” and “You snooping inside my handbag / diving into the past like a boy” raise the alert. In particular, “I am my writing,” reenforces what we know about Guerra, that writing is survival.

Punctuation is remarkably spare in the book. With only a handful of exceptions, each poem only contains a period at the end. It’s hardly noticeable because the lyricism of the poems and striking images distract from its absence. Visual caesurae and capitalization often act as a cue to end or close a thought. In a book that reckons with power, control, and autonomy this choice feels powerfully intentional. Finality only arrives when the poet is done speaking. Although many forces seek to silence and erase her voice from literature, Guerra rises triumphant in this collection.

Laura Villareal is a poet and book critic. Her debut poetry collection, Girl’s Guide to Leaving, (University of Wisconsin Press 2022) was awarded Texas Institute of Letter’s John A. Robert Johnson Award for a First Book of Poetry and the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in West Branch Magazine, POETRY, Guernica, and elsewhere.