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Archive for January, 2012

Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been claimed that to surrender one’s heart is to be enslaved, by which it could be meant that when the heart is owned by another, all the abject shamefulness of slavery devolves to one’s lot, such as lack of autonomy, enforced obedience, servility, victimhood, humiliation and more. This claim asserts that to give one’s heart is to cease to be free.

To what extent can this be true? Do we have any choice in the matter? That is, do we fall in love volitionally? Is being in love the equivalent of slavery? Does one indeed become a slave to another when one surrenders one’s heart? Does the one to whom the heart is given become a slave owner? If love is requited and a heart is given in return, do both parties become slaves of each other?

If the one to whom the heart has been given, becomes a master – then it follows by an inescapable logic, she is a debased human being. But is this so? Is the slave a mere possession, and the master a moral reprobate? Can giving and receiving of core affections be reduced to such an abject level as this?

It is true that some people  – and they tend mostly to be women – become the chattels of others under the auspices of contracts and conventions which are widely approved of and accepted by social and religious institutions alike, and marriage was, for women at least, just such an institution, and frequently is. Economic conditions too have their power to enslave, and most of the world’s population have no other choice than to exchange their labour in return for remuneration under the terms dictated by employers. Imprisoned people are slaves of sorts, as are the old, the severely ill, and the incapacitated. But these are not matters of the heart. All these many varieties of slavery have in common that they are, for the most part, without real reward, and that they are all essentially heartless.

When does a person who has given his or her heart to another become a slave? I suppose it could be when the heart (which signifies the love and devotion given to another) is not valued, or not returned, or not respected. Heartbreak is indeed a kind of enslavement, when pain and misery become the master, and a kind of all-pervasive negation becomes the element we find ourselves swimming in. The dismantling of one’s very self in an ensuing process of undoing and demoralisation more than resembles, and is perhaps worse than, slavery. But this is the result of losing one’s heart rather than giving it – by which I mean, it fails to be the ‘possession’ of either the giver or the recipient.  Such misadventures are the lot of many of us humans, and considering how painful and damaging they are, we fervently wish to escape them. We might wish to remain safe from the vicissitudes and dangers of love by avoiding the occasions of love, but what may be gained from such a resolve?

We may consider one woman’s thoughts on the subject – and one who was intimately familiar with the heart’s surrender, and with a more mundane form of enslavement as well – that of being the property of the Convent, and the Catholic Church. It would appear that Juana Inés Asbaje gave serious thought – and more – to the subject of love, and to love in the context of slavery and slave ownership. It was with grave sorrow and misgiving that she chose to become a nun, and bind herself in an indissoluble bond to the church and convent, thereby enslaving herself for life, with not the slightest hope of an eventual manumission.

 
Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte.

Si los riesgos del mar considerara
ninguno se embarcara, si antes viera
bien su peligro, nadie se atreviera,
ni al bravo toro osado provocara.

Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera,
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera,
quien con discreta mano le enfrenara.

Pero si hubiera algo tan osado,
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiera gobernar con atrevida

mano, el rápido carro en luz bañado
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado, que ha de ser toda la vida.

 

 

She ponders the animosity inherent in choosing a way of life binding until death.

If the dangers of the sea were to be considered,
None would dare embark, upon once having viewed them.
Neither would one risk the peril of confronting
The fearsome bull within the fraught arena.

If the ardent and fiery brute-force of the race
Should go unchecked, surely the furious bolting   
Of the steed would not be dared by any rider,
Rather it would be bridled and discreetly handled.

But should there be another so daring, so undaunted,
That despite the self-same dangers, facing an Apollo,
She would seek to control and govern with fearless hand

The breakneck progress of that dazzling chariot,
She would dare all, and not elect to choose
An estate demanding lifelong possession of her very being.

 

 

In this poem, Juana Inés appears to mean the very opposite of what she is saying. If one considered the dangers inherent in certain choices, one would not choose them. If one considers the dangers, and still chooses, one is an equal of the gods.  As in the case of many of Juana Inés’s poems, her reasoning and the sense can be applied to many other situations as well. The conclusions are apt and applicable to a multiplicity of serious situations.

To which category then can we assign Juana Inés? She considered the perils of a lifelong commitment to convent life, and in eternal servitude of the church. She made this terrible choice, even though a freer spirit probably never drew breath. She did so after full consideration, which makes her daring all the more remarkable. But if we consider her statement that had she possessed sufficient daring she would not have made the choice she did (to be a nun) we have to see it as a self-deprecating sleight-of-hand. She did see, she did dare, and she did choose – even though the she had to choose between two different but equally  restrictive futures. She rejected the conventional roles available to women, all of them as the property of individual men. She became instead the property of a male institution, the church, but only because she aspired to write and study, to love, and to pursue learning. She was no mere nun, but a true and genuine poet.  Love and poetry were her true vocations. Exigency alone dictated her choice, and it was one which demanded the highest degree of courage and fortitude on her part.

But it was the choice to love unstintingly which gave Juana Inés her chief joy, and highest degree of freedom. It did not matter to her that she loved under nearly impossible conditions and enormous constraints. The fact was that she loved with her all, and surrendered her all to love. It appears to me that her experiences in loving unleashed a remarkable creativity, and drew deeply of her soul’s potential. It heightened and refined her humanity, and made of her an illumined being.

 

Expresa su respeto amoroso: dice el sentido en que llama suya a la señora virreina marquesa de la Laguna.

 

Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.

A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.

Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.

Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.

Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.

Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.

Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.

Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,

En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.

 

She expresses her loving respect, explaining what she means when she says Her Ladyship the Vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, belongs to her.

 

My divine Lysis
pardon me if I dare
then to address you thus,
since to be called yours exceeds my merit

and to this I cannot presume.
To call you mine I would be placed
at the mercy of your sovereign darting rays
if in my boldness I have overreached, and dared.

It is an error of the tongue
when that which is called imperial
and mastered, and of the dominion
appear to be the slave’s possessions.

“My king” declares the vassal,
“My prison” claims the prisoner,
and the most humble slave
without the slightest offense can claim her master as her own.

Thus when I call you mine
I am not in the least pretending
that you will be adjudged to belong to me,
but solely that I wish to be yours.

I saw you – but just stop there:
in order to say there is a fire
it is sufficient to show the cause
there is no need to affix blame on anyone for the result.

To see you so elevated
does not impede my audacity,
for there is no deity who can remain beyond
the reach of  lofty flights of cogitation.

And yet there are those, more deserving –
in their proximity to heaven –
equally placed is the humble valley
as the superbly high mountain.

Finally, I must be confessed
of this sin, which is my adoration –
and if you wish to chastise me,
your chastening will be my reward.

 

 

 

This poem, which appears to be of the utmost humility, is actually making a cosmic claim. Even as she calls herself a slave, she places her claim in a position superior to all dominion. How could this be? This playful equivocation with the first person possessive pronoun appears to be the object of a simple game – a play on words – and that is the usual interpretation of this poem. But when one takes the words of Juana Inés at face value, a whole hidden universe of deeper meaning tends to be missed.  This poem is really about the paradox of the ‘enslaved’ heart. The deepest truths are to found in paradox, and Juana Inés’s life was a master-class on the subject of paradoxical truth.

A heart that is given can never be enslaved. If it is refused, it may be freed by default. If it is taken, it becomes the possessor of its recipient. The one possessing it is engaged in a relation to the core of another, and this connection is one which binds both. The master is only a master if he or she possesses the slave. Therefore the status of ownership devolves on what is owned.  That which is owned becomes the definer. This is the subtle logic of relationships – call it metaphysical if you like, but it cannot be avoided.

In her servile situation as a nun, Juana Inés always had an eye on freedom. Her internal identity was  fixed neither by status nor by role,  both of which were in the end mere compromises and expediencies.  Though she may just as well as have been called a slave as a nun, neither was ever her true identity. She was in fact a lover and a poet.

But a master on the other hand depends on his or her possession of the slave, and the riches  the slave produces. As far as human relationships go, there is not much difference between a slave, or an employee, or an ordinary citizen living under the control of the state, for they exist in a contractual relationship with those they enrich. Though we may recoil in horror at this statement, it is one of of extreme banality.

The person whose own heart is her possession, ungiven and unsurrendered, owns an artifact of questionable worth. All joys accruing to such a person must be self-generated. Never could there be the joy of being possessed by love – which is as far from slavery as one can get, because such possession can truthfully be thought to be the highest  form of union. This is the central truth to which which all mystics fervently attest.

Juana Inés knew this profound truth. In giving herself away entirely she found the core of her genuine self. She loved with an astute recklessness, free of all self- serving evasions. She found the greatest wisdom in loving unwisely, and the greatest freedom in letting her heart be captured.

Death comes to all of us in the end and the claim made over us by oblivion is the final enslavement. It may be a matter of pride to us that we die free and unenslaved by love – masters of our own life and fate, and unbeholden to anyone. To be self-sufficient and not dependent on another for our personal happiness may be a worthy goal to strive for, and a safer one than rolling the dice on love – but what would the world be like if this was the choice made by people like Sappho and Petrarch and Catullus and Juana Inés, who found the greatest wisdom and beauty in loving unwisely, and never counting the cost?

I think it would be a much dimmer and darker place, and one I would not at all prefer to the one they left us as a result of their profligate choices.

 

*Translations Dia Tsung.

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These love- letters  – from women such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf –  represent a legacy of our lesbian past which does not receive very much prominence. So much correspondence of this type simply does not survive, because of its private and ephemeral nature. Letters are lost, destroyed, and frequently ignored by publishers, even when the writers are famous women.

These few examples serve to show the variety and the intensity of feeling these women felt for each other. Times may change, and the hand-written love letter may go the way of the Dodo – and who knows, even the love -letter itself – but we can hope that they will not disappear entirely, and that the originals of these missives survive safely in someone’s archive.

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Etta James: So long Etta!

Etta James (January 25 1938 – January 21 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are no words to describe the legacy of Etta James. Her music was powerfully touching and affecting – and it came out her her with the full force of her body and soul. Her voice, her musicality, her spirit and her raw emotion gave her songs an unforgettable edge – an immediacy  that stained the memory with their imprint. I remember listening to her songs on the radio in my apartment,  and being transported to whatever world she created in that instant in my life – stopping a conversation or lighting a cigarette to go into that place in my head where the lyrics could take hold of me and take me out of my day. I remember  nights in the ’80’s –  around closing time in a lesbian bar  – I think it was Freddie’s  –  here in Denver, when sometimes the D.J  would knock off  a little early, and someone would put some quarters in the jukebox  and  the old songs would bring a new group of dancers who would  move onto the floor and slow dance to those songs –  “My Dearest Darling”, “At Last”,   ” A Sunday Kind of Love”   – and this voice could make you long fiercely for the kind of love she sang about. I remember some of those faces caught  in a slant of  dim light – young and (to us 20 somethings and thirty somethings) old, women in each others’ embrace, just dancing, and the nostalgia and memories that would fill the air was something palpably felt.  So Goodbye and Goodnight Miss Etta – you were a part of my life then, and you will always be. Just keep on singing wherever you are.

 

Here is a  rather large selection – because it was so hard to choose – from a time that was.

 

At Last

A Sunday Kind of Love

My Dearest Darling

Teach Me Tonight

Don’t Cry Baby

If I Can’t Have You

Anything to Say Your’e Mine

Trust in me

Embraceable You

Body and Soul

The Very Thought of You

I Don’t Stand the Ghost of a Chance with You

How Deep is the Ocean

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27 1756 – December 5 1791)

Lately a riotous group of ideas has been playing inside my head like a bunch of devilishly exuberant and unruly children, and like a distracted parent I feel I must push them out the door, even if they will then have to play barefoot in the street. I cannot hold on to them  long enough to get them fully dressed and shod, but must have a little quiet in the house in order to sit down at my computer for a few undistracted moments  in order to think about demons, gender-multiplicity, the failure of the divine, hearing voices, the paradise of the autocrat, sacred spaces, the repair of the soul, operatic divas and the voices of writers, and to figure out where and how on earth could all these ideas be brought together?

To begin at the beginning, I think I might have to excuse God for his terrible mistakes. The children’s behaviour reminds me that he was young and ignorant, and his egomaniacal temperament did not help him in the least when it came to rescuing himself  – let alone everyone else – from error. Ignorance of his own origins (the mistake of an over-indulgent mother) made a monster out of him. So his experiment with creation was doomed from the very beginning.  His maladroit manipulations threw hell and heaven and earth into a roiling mess, where freedom and leisure and joy came to be admixed with censure and punishment and guilt. Such an important enterprise  as creation should never have been entrusted to a clumsy and not-too- bright child – especially one whose eyes were set too close together, and who drooled and was given to tantrums, but even the Goddess makes the occasional error in judgement. This is a good thing, because we human beings need look no further in seeking a reason to be kind to ourselves with regard to our own mistakes.

Kings – who began their careers the children of divine queens, were to become god’s representatives on earth, and some of them mirrored their

Pietro Metastasio (January 3 1698 – April 12 1782)

defective creator to a remarkable degree, but occasionally  the goddess had a worthy grandson who exemplified the complex virtues I am certain were originally intended to be possessed by our human rulers.  God began his misadventure by making paradise unsafe. He made some foolish and short-sighted conditions, and when things began to go pear-shaped, he compounded his initial errors several times over. Then, in a fit of childish distemper he evicted his created companions, and sent them off to keep company with the devil. Now, the devil, as we know, is quite the antithesis of God, and as the Bible notes, is extremely subtle.  He could – and did – embody himself  as both serpent and apple, so the end-game and  the first move happened in the same moment. God – to his eternal detriment,  is a god of exclusion, but the devil  – or rather his minions, our individual demons, are creatures of accommodation: that is to say, they must by all accounts be accommodated.  If this talented troupe is welcomed to the table which hath been prepared before us, in the presence of all who might wish to observe, and the cups run over, and if they are suitably and properly propitiated, everything in the earthly garden will be made lovely: if not, everyone suffers.

An enlightened despot, a benevolent dictator, an autocrat of rare sensibility  – however one would wish to define him –  is the one whom the Goddess should have  put in charge in the first place. Such a person would have been vastly more qualified to deal with our demon-ridden souls, and infinitely more suited to do good than a rodent-eyed presiding deity.

Franz Xavier Süssmeyr (1776 – September 18 1803)

But where might such a gem be found? Not in paradise certainly – that unaccommodating and dangerous place – that stage with the rotten floor-boards, where the monster is given to strolling in the evening….
No – the place to look for him would be on the operatic stage – and in particular in that amazing opera La clemenza di Tito.

Opera is the place where the imperfect is perfectly staged , where all the angels – fallen and otherwise, and all the demons – redeemed or otherwise – are given their voices. They are relieved of the constraint to silence, and are allowed, encouraged – and even compelled – to sing.  Not just their voices, but their many genders are relieved of all imprisoning trammels. The full authentic range of dæmonic splendour can be unleashed and relished in full view, and the audience pays for the privilege of being a docile witness , being by convention permitted to respond only at certain times, and in certain ways.

The stage then is a sacred space – life and death are treated according to the requirements of well-designed plots: punishments and rewards are meted out according to a complex but pleasing calculus. There is a “fearful symmetry” to be found here, and occasionally a pleasing and satisfying one, where the demons find that to be known is to be loved – and to be accepted and forgiven. What more could we ask for? Mozart has given freely of  his musical riches in a wonderful score, and the combined talents of three or more librettists have given us  poetry, and drama. All this bounty is brought stunningly to life in one production which probably stands head and shoulders above all the others – the 2003 Salzburg staging featuring Michael Schade, Vesselina Kasarova, Dorothea Röschmann, (who might be recognised  as the daughter in the clip with Diana Damrau who sings “Der Hölle Rache” elsewhere on this blog)  Barbara Bonney and  Elina Garanča – referred to as ‘The dream team’.

Love, hate, enmity, ambition, invidiousness, weakness, shame, regret, treachery, and acts of  arson, treason attempted murder and reckless endangerment are followed by clemency shaded strongly towards forgiveness . All the demons of troublesome and mismanaged  human impulses are all given a significant part to play in this thrilling drama. In my view hell is the place where the demons have not been welcomed, accepted and suitably propitiated, therefore this particular production finds the lot of them happy in their operatic heaven. This is a place where they can hold suspenseful and beautiful sway.  This is where errors and miscalculations are not only forgiven, but redeemed. Aside from the intricacies of the plot, a few arias command our undivided attention. The first is an operatic rarity, a mezzo-mezzo aria. Here we have a mind-boggling confection set forth for our delectation. Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto) and Elina Garanča (Annio) celebrate their friendship in the all too brief aria

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso (mio amico fedel)  –  Oh take a sweet embrace, my faithful friend.

Here we have two ostensibly straight women in the roles of two straight men, displaying in appearance the vision of butch-lesbian beauty personified, and dramatising the shadows of two gay boys! The multiplicity of gender expressions witnessed here dazzles the eye and tickles the brain. The mind boggles at having to absorb the fluid chiaroscuro of so many shades of gender in less than two minutes. The two mezzos are in on whatever they have decided to act or enact – and we the stunned spectators are left helpless, immobilised, speechless, and silent. This is theatre at its very best.

One of the interesting aspects to me of such roles and spectacles, is that once a woman plays such a part, regardless of the requirements of the script, once I have  recognised and registered a lesbian ‘visual’, she then occupies a particular psychic space within me. The fusion is effortless and unstoppable, and it takes over the space of the whole opera, and extends beyond it. Whenever I see either Kasarova or Garanča in another role, my mind obeys the law of a light-suffused eye and superimposes a ghost upon my actual vision, the ghost of the shadow of these retained images.

Ah perdona il primo affetto

The 2003 Salzburg production of this wonderful opera takes a position of openness and celebration towards the frissons created by a profusion of gender ambiguities. At the same time, it does so with a certain degree of wryness or slyness, under cover of of plot conventions which require us to believe we are seeing men (though played by women) who sound and look like lesbians. No matter what we believe about what the roles and genders are intended to represent, subliminally we absorb and recognise and intuit the subtext of a lesbian continuum which gaily runs all the way from male to female. Divas like Brigitte Fassbaender bring something even more to the parts they play, (Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus  and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier) which is to say, their authentic lesbian natures.  The voice of a woman issuing from the figure of a man can only mean one thing to me – and that is ‘lesbian’, but this was not always so.  In Mozart’s time, these parts were played by castrati.

In this next clip, “Parto ma tu ben mio”  (in  a different production – and perhaps a more introspective interpretation) when Kasarova sings “guarda mi – guarda mi” – “look at me – look at me” – I feel I know what is implied here – and those chest notes – which seem to fly directly out from the heart – express all the complexities of the ideas I keep trying to express.

The castrato is an unbelievably elaborate construct: that of  gender and sexuality, and a birthright given – or taken – in exchange for a voice. Such is the importance of The Operatic Voice. I sometimes think that our voices are the most demanding parts of us – clamouring louder than our hearts and souls ever could. They demand to be heard, to be attended to – they function as the most complete stand-ins of our authenticity – our aspirations, our characters, our very selves. The registers and timbres and ranges of our voices  spill into everything we do – how we communicate, how we express ourselves, how we are heard, and how we are perceived. Even the way we read – and certainly how we write – possesses a voice.   But the one important aspect of our voice – or voices – is that our demons possess a chorus of voices as well.

Come ti piace imponi

Most of us constrain the voices of our our concealed demons to a decorous public silence – or the occasional sotto voce, if what is said can be made to sound socially acceptable and politic.  The demons have to be kept secret. Unseen they may be able to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are indeed truly unloved and unwanted.  But the problems of course begin in earnest once they are seen –  because to remain unloved, after one has been seen, is to be truly disowned and rejected.

The castrati of past centuries succumbed to a physical neutering in order to develop a voice which was at once sweet and powerful, and I for one, am reminded of this when I hear a strong mezzo voice. Euripides observed that all women are exiles. Certainly this was so in his time, when women had to leave their parental homes in order to live with their husbands, but the same could be claimed of  lesbians who have to inhabit an overwhelmingly heterosexual world.  Their true natures must frequently be hidden or disguised, and a kind of neutered self be made to take its place, which is  in effect, to live in exile from the self.  When a mezzo plays a trouser role – these ambiguous parts requiring powerful voices –  she is paying tribute to both these classes of people.  She slips into the indeterminacy of maleness and femaleness and expresses this pivotal point in the gender continuum with the beauty of her nuanced and powerful voice.  Thus, in certain situations, exile itself becomes a refuge, because it has been given a voice, and an expression.

Parto ma tu ben mio

I am beginning to suppose that this ‘giving of voice’ may be one of the reasons that the mirroring of lesbian expression in trouser roles is such a charged and potent spectacle for lesbians. Certainly I think this is true for the way in which some gay men (of the operatic persuasion!) feel about the great sopranos – divas like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.  But the success of the voice alone might not – and frequently does not – bring along with a guarantee of happiness. Nevertheless, the imperative cannot be dispensed with or ignored, or cast aside without incurring immense and disastrous losses of integrity and authenticity.

The mysteries and secrets of the lesbian voice extend far beyond the sphere of opera – and even of music in general, into the heart of writing itself. One of the most fascinating of authorial voices for me is that of Willa Cather. Cather was fascinated with the Swedish singer Olive Fremstad, and wrote a book The Song of the Lark in which her own and Fremstad’s voice were intertwined in the single character of Thea Kronberg (we cannot fail to note the twin echoes of divinity and royalty in this diva’s name)  so much so that Fremstad admitted to not knowing where her character ended and Cather’s began.

As Cather got older, her voice – or so it seems to me – became more and more disguised and other-directed and  more removed from herself.  Death comes for the Archbishop, said to be her greatest work,  is about the deep relationship between two celibate Roman Catholic priests. The voice has become asexual, and other-sexual, and for me it has lost its natural timbre and become sterile and  uninteresting. And this might lead to another parallel concerning the life of ‘the voice’  – which is – that like all finite things given over to frequent use, it may be used up. It is a profound tragedy that a singer who over a lifetimes devotion  dedicated to mastering her profession,  may find that at the very pinnacle of  her life as a singer, that the treasure she had acquired, the wealth of wisdom about the glories and subtleties her art, that they can no longer be applied, because the voice itself – her instrument – is no longer perfect. There are no immortal voices.

The love of Cather’s life was Isabelle McClung in whose paternal house Cather had a ‘writing room’ and where she lived for many years, sharing a bedroom with McClung. In 1915 Cather received a job offer of sorts in Germany, and she and McClung planned to go there together. However McClung’s father vetoed the trip, and instead Cather took off to the Southwest with her friend  Edith Lewis.  When her father died later the same year, McClung became heir to his fortune, and, probably stung by Cather’s apparent betrayal, she married the violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather lost her ‘writing room’ in the McClung home, not because it was denied her – it was not.  I speculate that it was probably the change in their respective relationships which made a resumption of the old status quo impossible. Perhaps she was no longer able to tolerate being there. When McClung died in 1938, bundles of letters Cather had written to her were returned, whereupon Cather systematically burned them all.

Though Lewis and Cather went on to have a long relationship (they lived together until Cather’s death in 1947.) it would seem that something in Cather’s voice went silent as well. She lost McClung to marriage, and then to death, and it seems to me she began to fall back more upon that old lesbian trick of ventriloquism. Though Cather cared passionately about her individual characters’ places in their landscapes, I think she had lost her own – which was not to be found  in any geographical location, but elsewhere – in another place, another stage, with sympathetic acoustics, and an audience who could hear her honest intonations.  Cather remarked that “The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young” – but she might as well have added  “as a lesbian might to a straight world.”

One of the most important qualities needed in order to be a great soprano or a great mezzo, is, I think, a certain emotional accessibility – or even vulnerability – to have a heart which is visibly amenable or willing or ready or able to be touched. This is a quality that must come through if anything of the pathos or drama or humanity of a character is to be convincingly conveyed. ‘The voice’ is nearly everything, but it is not everything. There has to be an integration of all the human parts which support the voice – and a basic understanding – and acceptance of our own humanity.

Clemency – this is the grace of Tito – not a perfect person by any means, not very intelligent, and not very rational, but a good and moral human being with a good heart. Why he was ready to throw Sesto (the mere cat’s paw) to the lions and not Vitellia (the chief instigator) I cannot tell, but I am glad all were saved in the end, and forgiven their various sins and misdemeanours. It is clemency which is needed in the process of integration. Mistakes must be recognised, examined, understood and then repaired. In order for that to be achieved one has to embark upon a lifelong endeavor – to save and claim and reclaim all the scattered bits – the secret parts, the hidden aspirations, and all the supporting chorus  – no matter how disorderly – of our demon allies. They must be accepted, and even loved. They cannot be blamed for being immature, for being demanding, and above all for being the children that  some of them are.
And that is when the real performance can begin.

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Juana Inés Asbaje, The Phoenix of Mexico, was no ordinary woman. She was a poet of extraordinary depth and brilliance, but she was also a Muse, and furthermore a Muse who used her voice exactly as such. Both voices, those of poet and Muse, were true and authentic.  As a poet she wrote gallantly and nakedly, as only true poets can, with elegance and high Baroque style, but never substituting style for substance, and when she wrote as a Muse, her poems were addressed to men of the viceregal court, chiding them, teasing, ridiculing or indulging as the fancy took her, but never opening or exposing her heart. As a poet all her poems were addressed to a personal muse, and these astounding works are saturated with her ink, her tears, and her heart’s-blood.  Their structure is beautiful and elegant, and they are so skilfully and remarkably  compressed as to defy translation.  Such a woman comes along but once or so in a thousand years, and according to Robert Graves, himself one of the handful of  genuine poets to ever exist, the hallmarks of such extraordinary women are are beauty, learning, and loneliness. Juana possessed the latter two it is certain, but that she also possessed the first can be inferred from the words of her contemporaries, and even to some degree from her existing portraits.

Juana, like that other Catholic poet St. John of the Cross, lived in the menacing shadow of the church, which at that time owned the greater part of Mexico. She was a nun, and as such lived under the baneful curse of ecclesiastical authourity.  Although she was a much better poet than St John, and much more learned than either  St. John or St. Teresa, she loved women, and her genuine concern was humanistic rather than religious or mystical. Nevertheless, in her hands, the distinction between human and divine shimmered and blurred, as she endowed her human loves with attributes which  serve to show them in a light which even to us seems gloriously divine.

Even as she wrote plenty of material to amuse the viceregal court,which was doubtless enlivened by her presence, and later to appease and placate the church, she never ever fell prey to the paradigm resorted to by John and Teresa: she never wrote any swooning love poems addressed to a male muse. The poems that she did address to men are wry and ironic and indulgent or instructive:  They are never written in passionate surrender.

When speaking of Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom I prefer to think of as Juana Inés Asbaje, the name she possessed at birth,  it is easy and natural to slip into superlatives. ‘Highest’, ‘loftiest’, ‘most brilliant’, ‘most profound’, ‘nonpareil’ – these are the  terms, which come to mind. They  aptly describe both the writer and her writing. She was also a classicist, Latinist, intellectual, philosopher, dialectician, feminist, philologist, logician – and a Poet.

Most of us today know poetry only in its most debased form, so to come across this genuine exponent of resplendent and authentic Muse poetry can be an almost disorienting experience.  To read  the poetry of Juana Inés Asbaje in the original Spanish is an unparalleled experience, as rewarding as it is difficult. She has been made and remade in the hands of many translators, who have focused her through their individual lenses, some pure, and others full of unforgivable distortions, but even in the worst of these, her light is never occluded.

Juana Inés Asbaje appears to have burst upon the stage of history fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, and though there no poets among infant prodigies, (or vice versa)  Juana’s precocious genius made her a poet at a very young age, perhaps in her mid teens.

During the sixteen seventies, around the time when Juana was writing her most passionate poetry, Spanish literary practices lagged about a century behind those of Europe, and this might account for the Shakespearean echo in some of her writing. She was no mean dramatist, but her poetry is sharply distinguished from her dramatic and other works because of its stinging, piercing quality. Each line possesses both a sharpened edge and a point, as did the rapiers of Toledo steel, which subjugated Mexico and made it a Spanish colony. Her poems are intended to draw blood: they too are devastatingly effective weapons of conquest.

Juana was a sui generis, and an autodidact and a woman of antinomian wit. She rejected the roles imposed by society on the women of her time – matrimony, domesticity and motherhood – and chose instead her own vocation as a nun, preferring to live in the company of books over the company of men. She even rejected the definition of ‘woman’ with all its demeaning connotations, identifying herself instead with the sexual neutrality of her soul.

True poets share an essential quality of the quantum universe, that of non-locality, which makes them seem to be at once a part of the physical world and of its invisible counterpart, and so they are able to genuinely evoke and invoke and manifest the rare phenomena which creation places between these two positions. Poetry can only issue from a deeply divided soul which is acutely aware of its duality; true poetry reveals the core of its being at the bottom of the chasm. Since nothing divides a soul as effectively as love, all true poets are subject to this law – the law of  a love divided  soul – from which true poetry emerges in its authentic splendour.

Poetry must spring out of an unending effort to reconcile the irreconcilable parts of the human heart: the part which one may attempt to claim as one’s own, and the part which has been claimed by another. Juana’s poems dance across this rift between the two in an exhalation of beauty. They resolve scores of opposites: they articulate the language of a woman’s soul together with a virility reminiscent of Catullus but with none of his harshness.  I think Juana’s poem “Yo no puede tenerte ni dejarte” echoes Catullus’ famous “Odi et amo quare faciam fortuit requiris – Nescio sed fieri, sentio et excrucior” Indeed she shares with Catullus an abiding concern with the personal and the personal muse, and the contents of her heart spill out into her poems with an aching grace.

Her poems bridge the profound and uneasy divide between the fiery sparks of an adamantine intellect, and the liquid, hidden beauty known only to accomplished mystics. She writes as a soul encased in flesh, loving both and rejecting neither. Therefore she was compelled to love with all her heart and all her soul, in complete surrender and obedience to the Muse, in a powerful amalgam of agony and grace.

It is easy to be sidetracked by Juana’s glittering intellect, but one is drawn irresistibly to her love poetry. Because we so seldom find the deepest truths to be one-sided, the greatest of them tend to be more expressible in terms of paradox. The great felicity of Muse poetry is that it encases paradox, (which after all is but a mental and cognitive construct), and transforms it into a form and language that the psyche immediately apprehends.

The love spoken of in these poems is a wounded love which digs into its own flesh in order to find words and language: it is a love which is reckless, acute, defiant and surrendered. But we know very little of the character of the women on whom Juana lavished – or perhaps squandered – her devotion, other than that they were both married to members of the viceregal court.

One thinks that if these mannered noble women, the denizens of high society who were the object of Juana’s ardour, were to have departed so far from the dictates of courtly propriety as to have hurled a wine-cup at her (as did the mistress of Propertius, at him), she would have responded with the same wry sparking grace and amplitude of temperament which inspired his “ Odi ego quas numquam pungent sospira somnos – Semper in irrata pallidus esse velim”. – Which has been translated to mean “Detestable to me ever is a night un-pierced by sighs – May I ever the be the pale lover of an angry mistress”.

One could conclude that some of Juana Inés Asbaje’s poems suggest a wry and cynical perspective on love, – but the kernel of truth these poems enclose is undeniable. I am thinking now of the poem about Jealousy and Absence…. In the estimation of a Muse-dedicated poet, absence is a more unbearable burden than jealousy. In the dynamic of the Muse mythos, She is free to confer her favours when and wheresoever she pleases. The lover/poet must in good grace accept these apparent caprices because the process into which a poet is drawn as a contender is a triad and not a dyad, but more importantly it is, like everything else in the universe, cyclical, and rejection and acceptance each take their appointed turn in this poetic cycle. In such situations ambivalences of thought may prevail, but never an ambivalence of devotion.

There is never any depth of emotion expressed or evinced in the ‘romantic’ poems that involve male subjects. Asbaje only ‘loves’ the man who hates her, as she ‘hates’ the man who ‘loves’ her. Neither circumstance permits any romantic fulfillment, and neither of these hates and loves, when compared to her Muse directed poems, are to be taken at all seriously.

Juana Inés Asbaje’s  poems of ‘Love in Absence’ clearly assert that the worth  of one is not diminished by the other. Asbaje lived in an environment – the cloistered life of convent – which she had chosen in part of a devil’s bargain. Neither the court where she spent her adolescence nor the convent where she spent her adulthood was free of pernicious politics or the foetid breath of the Spanish Inquisition. She would have to tread carefully in either place, but the convent offered the greater stability, and it was a place – at least for a time, where she could keep her books and scientific instruments, and where she had a place to write.

This meant that contact with her two beloveds the two vicereins. Her first love was the vicereine, the Marquise of Mancera (Leonor Carreto addressed  in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Laura’, perhaps as a nod to Francesco Petrarch).Her second love Asbaje revealed only after the woman’s death:  the vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, Maria Luisa, Countess of Paredes (addressed in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Lysis’ or ‘Phyllis’). Both these intense loves were, in the end hopeless, not in the sense that they were without hope, but in the sense that they were blighted –‘Laura’ by separation when the vicereine later returned to Spain, and ‘Lysis’ by death. This was love with no expectation of winning, and borne in full acknowledgement of that fact. It was as if Asbaje had slit her purse and let its treasure escape, or like the Roman notables who, when condemned in a different fashion, matter- of- factly opened their veins and drained themselves of life. This was a nun, who nevertheless experienced mature and intense passion of the sort that dissolves the self.

Asbaje never complained that love always comes with a price. Unlike Sir Tomas Wyatt (They Flee from Me Who Sometime Did Me Seek), she never whimpered,  whined or complained. She knew well that the Muse cannot offer constant love, because in a very deep sense she is nature itself, and like the moon which symbolises her, she is constantly changing, and bringing change and movement in her wake.

Whether these high-born  beloveds, the vicereines, who elicited such avid unquenchable longing and on whom these poems and sentiments were pinned, were trivial and unworthy, we cannot know. They were beautiful certainly, and accomplished, and they must have offered some form of encouragement, but accompanying that encouragement was deception and coquetry, and the awareness of the power that women gain, who are the beloveds of dedicated lovers. Asbaje was both an open book and an enigma; a nun and a lover, a women of sumptuous intellect in a time when even most men were illiterate. She was both humble and audacious, acquiescing to the narrow- minded strictures of the church while actively rebelling against it.

Asbaje was capable of a of a brilliant sleight- of hand which permitted her to enlarge on a secular – and personal – subject while appearing to discuss a spiritual one. It is clear that a poem such as “Traigo commigo un cuidado” on the difficulty of loving an invisible God was not by any means à propos solely to its nominal subject, but it served, for it was too subtle for the vaunted clerical intellects to detect her trinity of feminist, humanist and sapphic heresy.

Even as she deferred to the authority of the men who ruled her society, she was outspokenly and deeply critical of their hypocrisy and misogyny as is evidenced in her devastating satire “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razon”. – ‘You foolish men who accuse women without justification’ This satirical tour de force is a true reflection of her mordant wit, and great temerity: wit wherewith she excoriated ignorant men, it was unequaled for centuries both before and after her.

If ever an instance was required to reveal the sheer ignorance, vileness and misogynism of the Catholic Church, it may be found in the manner in which the voice of Asbaje was silenced. When her noble protectors were recalled to Spain, the draconian archbishop of Pueblo swooped down upon her with all the zeal of a predator which has singled out its chosen prey. She was not subjected to the sadistic torments of the rack or the strappado, but she may as well have been. When I think of this monster, Goya’s Los Caprichos  comes  to mind. “The Devout Profession”, “O What a Golden Beak”, “Swallow it Dog!” and “Nothing Could be Done About It” – The church of that time, with all its diabolical minions. This  precious miracle of humanity, was forced to sell all the books in her library, her scientific instruments, and give the proceeds to charity. She was compelled to cease writing, and so her vocation as a writer, thinker and poet were brought to an asphyxiated end.

I cannot help in myself an impulse to compare Asbaje’s disillusionment with that of the famous Italian ‘Poet of Disillusionment’ Giacomo Leopardi. Leopardi, despite his famous poetic offerings to women, was not a Muse Poet. Both Asbaje and Leopardi were dedicated to ‘La Donna Non Si Trova’ – Leopardi’s term for his Muse, meaning’ The woman who cannot be found (attained)’ – but what an unbridegable difference in attitude separates the virile Asbaje from the effete Leopardi!

When it came to love Juana Inés Asbaje spared herself nothing, and made no attempt to defend herself. She went on cutting and re-cutting her heart open, never seeking to assuage its pain. She was aware of her divided soul, and her contradictions, but at the same time she possessed a species of wholeness that few people can hope to attain. She had the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, and speaks to us still, by means of the most eloquent use of her silence.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En que da moral censura a una rosa,
y en ella a sus semejantes.

 

Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura;
amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo sér unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura:

¡  cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida

de tu caduco sér das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida,
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

 

 

 

 

In which she gives a rose a  moral censure,
and through her, to those she resembles.

 

Divine rose, in your gracious and tender blossom,
You are with your most fragrant subtleties,
Bestower of  enroyalled instructions on beauty
Pure as the snow, you teach of loveliness.

 

Likeness of human form and structure,
Exemplar of  all the vain gentility
Wherein nature is to be found uniting
Both the happy cradle and the lamented grave.

 

What loftiness there is in your presumption!
And prideful scorn at the mere hint of death’s suggestion.
Yet no sooner than you shrink back in consternation

 

Of that incipient state, with fainting and withered innuendo,
Of your erudite death and fatuous life, than you signal
You lived deceiving, but in your death enlighten!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

Torquato Tasso (March 11 1544 – April 25 1595)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quel labbro, che le rose han colorito,

 

 

Molle si sporge e tumidetto in fuore,
Spinto per arte, mi cred’io, d’Amore,
A fare a i baci insidioso invito.
Amanti, alcun non sia cotanto ardito

Ch’osi appressarsi, ove tra fiore e fiore
S’asconde un angue ad attoscarvi il core,
E ‘l fiero intento io veggio, e ve l’addito.
Io, ch’ altre volte fui nelle amorose

Insidie colto, or ben lo riconosco,
E le discopro, o giovinetti, a voi;
Quasi pomi di Tantalo, le rose

Fansi all’incontro, e s’allontanan poi;s'asconde un angue
Sol resta Amor che spira fiamma e tosco.

 

 

 

 

 

Torquato Tasso

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These lips the roses have coloured,

 

Thrust out in swollen pout
Artfully polished, I do believe, by Love himself
To make insidious invitation to a kiss.
Lovers who dare approach, don’t be so bold –

There betwixt flower and flower, I see
Conceals itself a serpent, to sting the heart
And its audacious cruel intent points me
Towards another time, now passed when I in love
Encountered that cultured trap, I so well recognise,
And so to you too young folk, I point it out
As being as it were the apples of Tantalus
Fanning the flame at first sight, but further on,
All that remains of love expires in a conflagration.

Translation Dia Tsung.

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Edith Holden (September 26 1871 – March 15 1920)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a feast for the eyes in this sparse month – Edith Holden’s commemorative gems of Warwickshire country life of over a hundred years ago.

 

 

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