Mallorie Johnson, a Theater major at the University of La Verne, produces a podcast called “Arguments about Classical Theater.” For the second half of episode 4, she and her co-host Dan Jerz interviewed me about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1651-1695), called in her time “The Tenth Muse” and the “Phoenix of the Americas”: she was a learned religious woman of the Order of St. Jerome, a “Renaissance” woman living in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, and a prolific writer of poems, plays, and a famous letter, “Reply to Sor Filotea.” The podcast is available on SoundCloud:
(My portion of the podcast begins at 31:38. Important correction: I accidentally identified the slayer of the Minotaur as Jason, when I should have said THESEUS, when discussing the classical myth of the Labyrinth … !)
In the podcast, I give a reading of my poem, “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Sings of a Swan,” an ekphrastic poem about three portraits of Sor Juana:
SOR JUANA INÉS DE LA CRUZ SINGS OF A SWAN
When I was young, the painter came and painted me
beautiful, a book in one hand, my other hand turned out
as if waiting for You to take it and ask me to dance.
But all my secrets were simmering inside me
like spices—like cinnamon—or red pepper
ground to powder and ready to burn your mouth.
My desires were as sweet as a singing swan.
I went away from the house where I was fostered
and took refuge in a monastery dedicated to Saint Jerome,
and he came again, that painter, and painted me:
sitting in my black and white habit, a wall of books
behind me, one open before me (not the Bible),
my beads wound round my body and dripping down
my shoulder, across my thigh, held in my hand,
but easy to ignore in comparison
to the oval portrait, like a shield of faith, upon my breast
showing an angel with rainbow wings flying above
someone kneeling, like Paul on the Damascus road, before
the Power that changes us in the middle of our life’s path.
Little did I know! All that would be asked of me
by the Archbishop—my books, my music,
my scientific instruments—for answering Sor Filotea.
Yes, I confess, I said that a woman has as much
right as a man to learn to read and write, and to do it
freely! But I was not free. I was bound by my vows.
So I surrendered all.
The painter came again and painted me before I died,
one hand resting on the book of my own works, the other
holding the breviary (for life is brief), while wearing
my escudo,another oval painting upon my breast, this
time showing a woman, an angel, and a dove
descending from heavenand announcing that
the new life had come.
from Rising: Poems for America
(Wipf and Stock, 2014)