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.