Old School

On Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz portrait

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: The Immortality of Sound & Fury

There is a fly buzzing around my head right now. The sound it's making is all I can focus on while I write this. I look at the page; I hear the fly. I hear the fly; I look at the page. It's not how I intended to write, with a tiny winged beast dive-bombing my brain, but it makes me think about sound. The obsession of poets; the sounds we grind into our papers. The crazy fly of sound in the ear, the addicting earworm of a poem, has always been a weird and intense obsession for me.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz knew well the weird and intense obsessions of language. Known to be highly intelligent, Cruz, a youth, cut off a lock of her hair each time she failed to remember one of her Latin grammar lessons because, "It didn't seem right to me that a head so naked of knowledge should be dressed up with hair, for knowledge is a more desirable adornment." Born in Mexico in 1651 (or 1648 depending on the source) in San Miguel Nepantla, when Mexico was still a viceroyalty of New Spain, Cruz was a self-taught scholar who devoted her life to religious studies, languages, literature, and poetry. Though I could easily devote my life to studying her biography, it's her sound-packed, Baroque style poetry that I find electrifying and strange and worthy of worship.

Born just over one hundred years after Cortez landed on the Yucatán Peninsula, and alive during Mexico's storied Colonial period, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has been embraced for years by Feminist movements and Chicano/Latino movements. I didn't learn about her in poetry class, not as an undergraduate, nor as a graduate student; instead, I learned about her in Chicana Studies. We studied her for her revolutionary feminist views and writings, her possible secret lesbian leanings, her struggle between the Spanish and native cultures, but we didn't study her poetry, her wild yet utterly controlled sound, her focused and furious diatribes, her agonizing love sonnets. But it's her poetry that always struck me as fiercely powerful.

I wanted to show you how much her sound play influenced my own work. I wanted to share how she drives a rhythm home, but when I found the poem I remembered loving so in Spanish, I couldn't find a translation that focused on the sounds. So, I thought I'd translate it on my own. I can understand a little, but for the most part, even though my grandfather crossed the border in 1917, Spanish wasn't really spoken in our home. Luckily, my older brother generously offered to help, and I'm able to share Cruz's original poem, and our translation, here. Even if our translation has failed, savor the original, and even if you don't speak Spanish, attempt to read a few lines out loud, and you'll see how necessary it is to celebrate Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, not just as an important historic figure, but as a true poetic master.

The original:

De una reflexión cuerda con que mitiga el dolor de una pasión

Con el dolor de la mortal herida,
de un agravio de amor me lamentaba;
y por ver si la muerte se llegaba,
procuraba que fuese más crecida.
Toda en el mal el alma divertida,
pena por pena su dolor sumaba,
y en cada circunstancia ponderaba
que sobrarban mil muertes a una vida.
Y cuando, al golpe de uno y otro tiro,
rendido el corazón daba penoso
señas de dar el último suspiro,
no sé con qué destino prodigioso
volví en mi acuerdo y dije:--¿Qué me admiro?
¿Quién en amor ha sido más dichoso?

The Ripcord of Love
Translation by Ada Limón & Cyrus Limón

With the force of a mortal blow,
with the sting of love's sorry sorrow,
I watched for death's final call to go,
I begged for the flood's big swallow.
Evil plagued my funny little soul.
Pain by pain, there grew a hollow,
so that in the time that dared to follow,
I'd have traded life to die and wallow.
And when the blows refused to end,
and my surrendered heart to mend—
in the final throws, in the blood's last sigh—
a strange magic rescued me just then.
I came back. But why should I live? Why?
For who, in love, has been luckier than I?

More Old School