Response: Poems, Protest, and a Dream

14Mar14

Normally my reading is regulated by the very long list (multiple notebooks) of  books I want to read. Once in a great while, however, there’s an open slot on my library card that allows me to wander through the stacks and choose something interesting at random. I discovered the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz while wandering through the International Poetry room, choosing it by title alone, and I was not disappointed.

Image taken from Metanexus - click through to read a biography of Sor Juana.

Image taken from Metanexus – click through to read a biography of Sor Juana.

Sor Juana (1648-1695) was a Catholic nun at the Convent of Santa Paula in New Spain, as Mexico was known in the 17th century. Ilan Stavans’ terrific introduction paints a more complete picture of the woman who was anything but a humble, demure religious. In fact, one of the main reasons we still know about her today is because she was constantly getting into trouble for being a woman who wanted to read, write, and learn. Her most famous writing is the “Protest” mentioned in the title, “La Respuesta a Sor Filotea,” a letter to her bishop, responding to charges that she’s overstepped her bounds as a nun with her writing.

The letter is a brilliant defense of a woman’s right to learn and teach, and is most likely the first written document to do so, long before Mary Wollstonecraft took up her pen. Sor Juana’s defense is, basically, that God gave her such an intellect, so clearly He wanted her to do something with it. A sample argument:

…from the moment I was first illuminated by the light of reason, my inclination towards letters has been so vehement, so overpowering, that not even the admonitions of others–and I have suffered many–nor my own meditations–and they have not been few–have been sufficient cause to me to forswear this natural impulse that God has placed in me: the Lord God knows why, and for what purpose.

The original Spanish text occupies the left-hand pages of the response, with the English translation on the right, a pattern that is upheld throughout the text, so that readers of Spanish, English, or dual faculty can enjoy and study the work (it would definitely make an interesting exercise for advanced English students studying Spanish, or vice versa).

The best thing about the letter is Sor Juana’s ability to work within the system of her culture to try to make change. Basically she’s saying, look: there’s a Biblical history of women who learn and teach. God has given me these gifts. It is wrong of you, as my superior and a man of God, to try to keep me from God’s work. The letter is all courtesy on top, brimming with impatience underneath. The spirited nun demands to fulfill her potential, and heaven help anybody who gets in her way! Even in the formal language of the Baroque period, the sassy shines through.

After the protest comes the dream, de la Cruz’s most famous poem. Known as “El sueño” or “Primero sueño,” it poses a mystery and a tease right at the outset, since it can be translated in various ways with various shades of meaning. Margaret Sayers Peden, the translator this volume, opts for “First I Dream,” implying that action will follow.  On a very basic level, it’s the story of a dream the speaker had, a journey filled with fantastic images and strange sights, as dreams often have. However,  given that de la Cruz had a head full of learning, there are layers upon layers of interpretation, incorporating mysticism, Scholasticism, and Gnostic thought, to the point where a contemporary reader–usually far less well-versed in these matters– might simply get confused and walk away. The poem begins:

Pyramidal, doleful, mournful shadow,
born of the earth, the haughty culmination
of vain obelisks thrust toward the Heavens,
attempting to ascend and touch the stars…

Four lines for the subject of the sentence, and the verb doesn’t appear for another eight lines, so you do, indeed, feel as if you are in a dream, struggling to make sense of the landscape. Readers of Spanish may fare better with the original (and doesn’t every translation make you long to be able to read the original?). But for all its complexity, you can’t not read it and marvel. It’s the sort of thing you’ll puzzle over slowly, but if you invest the effort, you’re rewarded with a grand vision of the universe, one the dreamer plans to put into play when s/he wakes up.

The remainder of the poems, some of which were written during de la Cruz’s pre-religious life as a court poet, reflect the diversity of style and topics of which she was capable. Though most likely dictated by the whim of her patrons, de la Cruz demonstrates the ability to write “on spec” comfortably. The collection contains romances, a redondilla, eipgrams, sonnets, décimas, and a villancico. Opening the book at random, we are treated to one of the décimas, a form that asks for ten octosyllabic lines, usually with several acceptable rhyme schemes:

She assures that she will hold a secret in confidence

The page, discreetly, will relate
how, the moment it was read,
I tore your secret into shreds
that shreds not be the secret’s fate.
And, something more, inviolate,
I swallowed what you had confessed,
the tiny fragments of your note,
to guard the secret that you wrote
and honor thus your confidence, lest
even one scrap escape my breast.

Note the clever, playful quality here: the speaker, upon receiving a paper with a secret, swears secrecy and destorys the paper…only to then go on and create a document acknowledging that there is a secret to tell (though it will most assuredly never be). So much fun! Sor Juana would’ve been wonderful to talk to and hang out with, methinks.

The collection ends with several short plays, demonstrating that there was pretty much nothing this accomplished nun couldn’t do, and is supported by copious notes and suggestions for further reading. Although this is not a light project, if you’re interested in the poetry of women of color, why not jump in the extreme wayback machine and get acquainted with Sor Juana? She’s Baroque, all right, but that doesn’t mean she needs fixing.

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