The Monstrosity of Sor Juana
Mar 23, 2017
7 Min read time
Two new translations resurrect Mexico’s most enigmatic and paradoxical Baroque poet.
Sor Juana and Other Monsters
Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by John Pluecker
Ugly Duckling Presse, $7 (paper)
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated by Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal
Ugly Duckling Presse, $7 (paper)
With a pair of twinned chapbooks—Enigmas by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated by Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal, and Sor Juana and Other Monsters by Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by John Pluecker—the Señal series has performed a singular conjuration. In this quadruple array, Mexico’s great Baroque poet Sor Juana rises as a powerful and paradoxical specter from the inky ash of her own final, long-lost texts.
The Señal series, a collaborative project of Ugly Duckling Presse, Bomb Magazine, and Libros Antena Books, has declared its mission to publish paired chapbooks which “trouble received ideas around what the terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘Latin America’ might represent,” and these two volumes are its first entry in this effort. Sor Juana makes an apt wellspring for such a project. The activation of the Neo-Baroque as a tool of aesthetic counter-conquest has been a distinctive gesture in Latin American poetries for the last several decades, drawing from the achievements of twentieth century poetry superstars and finding exemplary figures in José Lezama Lima and Haroldo de Campos. But the work and biography of Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz evidences the Baroque itself as already the site of resistance and inversion, with Sor Juana embodying the subversive persistence of the suppressed.
Sor Juana was so outside the gender roles of her time that she became the ultimate Baroque monster.
Poet and proto-feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695) began life as a provincial child prodigy who found fame and protection at the Viceroy’s court in Mexico City, eventually securing intellectual freedom by entering a convent. For decades she produced poems, plays, and essays, but by the end of her life, she had fallen out of favor and wrote only for her fellow nuns. Enigmas, her final text, was written in the early 1690s (probably) but only discovered in Portugal in the 1960s. These nearly lost quatrains have the concentrated focus of having been written in the double silence of cloisterhood and political erasure, but they also mirror the impossible survival strategy of the prodigy herself: they burn with a brilliance which can only be flaunted because it is hidden.
Sor Juana’s twenty enigmas all begin with the interrogative “¿Cuál” or “What”: in Villarreal’s translations, “What will be that spoken dart,” “What can be the delight,” and “What is that atrocious mermaid.” In each instance the seemingly innocuous verb of being that follows ‘What’ immediately torques its whatness, sending it off on an acrobatic philosophical gambit. Each quatrain feels like a trap freshly set for the reader, and it is a credit to Villarreal that she preserves the knottiness of Sor Juana’s Baroque Spanish syntax as she so skillfully baits each English language trap. Her quatrains carry over from the originals Sor Juana’s sphinxy glamour while the presentation of the English below the Spanish original on the page makes the English language reader feel that she has slipped through the looking glass into an inverted world.
Villarreal achieves a feeling of confined vertiginousness by refusing to oversimplify or Americanize her translations in the sense of making the Enigmas read as if written, say, by Emily Dickinson, as the translator Glenna Luschei has done. Villarreal’s translations send up sparks, each line laced with connectors and modifiers complicating its relation to the line that precedes it. As a result, we are always reading backwards.
¿Cuál es aquella homicida
que piadosamente ingrata
siempre en cuanto vive mata
y muere cuando da vida?
What is that slayer–strife
that piously naughty
when living slaughters
and dies upon granting life?
Villarreal also scatters each line with jewels of sonic invention in order to preserve rather than de-emphasize Sor Juana’s now unfashionable habit of rhyme. Her audacious word choices accompanied by a tightly coiled syntax create a flexing, vivid space full of snares and wonders.
Sor Juana remains an enigma even as she persists, no amount of scrutiny rendering her into the scholar’s grasp.
In her Afterword Villarreal describes her “maximalist” and “cacophonous” translation strategy, which resists the hegemony of Spanish over indigenous languages and the hegemony of English over both. Villarreal lays out an aesthetics of translation based on resistance, pleasure, and her own history with language as a multilingual migrant child raised by a mother whose “political feminism was shaped by Sor Juana.” No wonder she can so resourcefully connect to Sor Juana’s multiplicity, noting “Duality here ought neither be constructed as contrary nor contradictory, for Sor Juana does not force the reader to decide between yes or no but rather facilitates the coexistence of yes and no to illustrate the viscera of an oxymoron on paper.” Villarreal is a translator in the mold of the polymath Sor Juana—fiercely refulgent.
It is precisely this paradoxical quality that earned Sor Juana the epithet “monstrous” both in her day and in subsequent centuries. Contemporary Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre channels this monstrosity in his work Sor Juana y otros monstruos, a selection from which appears in the chapbook Sor Juana and Other Monsters, translated by John Pluecker. Fabre’s outrageousness suits a subject who was herself learned, dazzling, and confounding. The first half of the chapbook parodies an academic treatise as Fabre gently and mockingly relates the findings of a pack of sorjuanistas—translated somewhat reluctantly by Pluecker as “Sor Juana scholars.” (Indeed this translation choice is my only quibble with the entire project—I do think U.S.-Americans who over the decades have come to terms with Sandinistas, Zapatistas, and, sigh, fashionistas, could have coped with and been rewarded by Fabre’s zesty sorjuanistas.) These sorjuanistas are fanatics who attempt in their various ways to get at the nature of Sor Juana’s “monstruousness.” Fabre tries on the disposition of each in turn, thus revealing himself as the ultimate sorjunanista, eager to wear Sor Juana’s many masks, himself a many-headed monster.
This strategy initiates the reader to the primary puzzle of Sor Juana’s biography and reception: the enigma of her genero, or gender. The prodigious cerebral capacity that placed Sor Juana so outside the conceivable gender roles of her time and culture made her the ultimate Baroque monster, an inconceivable misbirth. Her cloistering was the paradoxical acknowledgement and preservation of her prodigiousness. It would appear from the various sorjuanistas appearing in Fabre’s farce that Sor Juana remains an enigma even as she persists through centuries and cultures, no amount of scrutiny rendering her into the scholar’s grasp.
Villarreal lays out an aesthetics of translation based on resistance, pleasure, and her own history.
If the first half of Fabre’s book mimics the learned Sor Juana who outwits those who would analyze her, the second half channels Sor Juana’s voluble inventiveness, her joyful coaxing of the monstrousness that blossoms from the seam of language itself. The result is a text that is brimming with female bodies, excoriated and taboo, with body parts that keep bursting forth joyously from the syllables which would contain them. Fabre delights in summoning the vocabulary and Baroque metrics of Sor Juana, particularly the esdrújula, an ornate accenting of the antepenultimate syllable. Happily, Pluecker provides an excellent afterword that allows the novice sorjuanista to grasp Fabre’s sleights of Spanish, as well as the stakes of his own translation. The effect of so many esdrújulas is a heaping up of plaited and plated riches, best evinced here in “Mashup 2: Sor Juana y Medusa”
de esa lóbrega fémina:
áspide bípeda; hórrida; íngrima; lépera; pésima.
of that gloomy lady:
bipedally slithery; ghastly; lonely; trashy; nasty.
With a lawless plethora of y’s, John Pluecker’s English versions gallop gamely after Fabre’s vexed excess; whether in Spanish or in English, each mash-up evinces an almost clitoral exuberance that continuously places its textual finger on the exact spot, resulting in a great spasm of the entire textual body. In the conjoined body of the Spanish and English texts, these male-identifying poets are gathered into the monstrous multivalent genero of Sor Juana’s reanimated corpus, a libidinous organism, joyously discovering glands, organs and limbs in its folds.
This mirrored pair of mirrored texts creates a tessellating, four-handed Sor Juana as mobile as an angel’s extra set of wings, as arresting as the Medusa’s own gaze. And while it feels important and apt that the category-confounding Sor Juana was selected as the figurehead for the Señal series’ mission to “trouble,” the choice also emblematizes what translation itself can do. Translation makes a membrane of the looking glass, pushing the reader through into fresh, dubious, and ravishing logics. Translation always produces a text with a double body, “bipedally slithery,” piadosamente ingrata. It’s a joy to discover a new venture unembarrassed by this troubling, radiant zone.
March 23, 2017
7 Min read time