:: Article

“Killers and killed all”: Luis Felipe Fabre’s Sor Juana y otros monstruos

By Rivky Mondal.

Sor Juana y otros monstruos: Una ponencia en verso, seguida de tres mashups in homenaje/Sor Juana and Other Monsters: An Academic Paper in Verse, Followed by Three Mash-ups in Homage

By Luis Felipe Fabre. Translated by John Pluecker Señal (Ugly Duckling Presse, BOMB Magazine, Libros Antena), 2015.

 

¿Quál es aquella homicida
que, piadosamente ingrata,
siempre en quanto vive mata
y muere quando da vida?

 

[Who is that murderess, tell me—
so graciously ungrateful she—
who kills at once when comes alive
and, having given life, she dies?]

 

– “Enigma” by Sor Juana, translated by John Pluecker. All subsequent translations are by Pluecker unless noted

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz died in 1695 but has had endless potential for reanimation. To her contemporaries, she was the mysterious nun who wrote impenetrable poetry and searing critiques of the church for its treatment of women’s education. In the preface to one of her works, the monk Pedro del Santísimo Sacramento dubbed Sor Juana “Monstruo de las mujeres y prodigio mexicano” (“Monster among women and Mexican prodigy”). To readers today, she is Sor Juana, “Fénix de América,” “Musa Décima,” the proto-feminist, Baroque poetess of colonial Mexico — in short, a Latin-American legend. Yet despite all these epithets, Sor Juana’s life remains an unsolved mystery. Due to the lack of verifiable biographical information, much of what is known about her has been construed from her poetry. But here especially Sor Juana is hard to pin down, in part because she toggled between voices, genders, and personas to state her critiques and avoid Inquisitorial persecution. Despite her efforts, Sor Juana allegedly faced an ecclesiastical tribunal at the end of her life, prompting her to retract all statements against the church. She wrote very little thereafter. The quatrain above, taken from a collection of twenty “Enigmas,” was among her last. Posed as a riddle, it epitomizes the unanswered questions surrounding the figure of Sor Juana, who died as she lived entombed in her poems.

A poet-scholar based in Mexico City, Luis Felipe Fabre combines his expertise on Sor Juana with his passion for horror film to resurrect Mexico’s most famous nun in the 21st century. His bilingual chapbook, Sor Juana y otros monstruos/Sor Juana and other monsters, refabulates the story of Sor Juana’s return through a variety of resurrection tropes. Examples range from academic appropriation and Fabre’s own rendition of Sor Juana to zombie fiction and news reports from Mexico of bodies exhumed from unmarked graves. If there is an underlying theme, it is ironizing the widespread impulse to conjure Sor Juana from the contents of her poetry. Of course, Fabre shares that impulse. As John Pluecker states in the translator’s note: “Fabre’s obsession with Sor Juana uproots her from the seventeenth century and re-situates her in the twenty-first. Can we say he kills her? Or gives her new life? Or does she come alive to kill and then, having killed, return to her grave?” Fabre’s resurrection of Sor Juana enlarges upon the “Enigma” posed in this review’s epigraph.

Sor Juana y otros monstruos contains a poetic parody of an academic paper and three pastiche poems, or “mash-ups,” as Fabre terms them. The conversion of Sor Juana into an academic curio can well be compared to the creation of a monster, engineered from fragments of fact and fiction. Fabre threads that analogy through the collection but makes it explicit in the first poem, after which the chapbook is named. “Sor Juana y otros monstruos” pokes fun at Sor Juana scholars (“los sorjuanistas”) and their rhetorical strategies for arguing that Sor Juana was a monster. But do they believe it themselves? Although los sorjuanistas write books and publish articles scrutinizing her monstrosity (Fabre cites actual passages), they do not think she was an actual monster. Rather,

 

La mayoría lo admite intentando dar a entender
que lo admite en sentido metafórico,
pero lo admite.

 

[The majority admits it while attempting to make it understood
that they admit it in a metaphorical sense,
but they admit it.]

 

Evidently, los sorjuanistas live in a world where Sor Juana is a monster but also a mere metaphor. However, what if Sor Juana were not a metaphor? Notwithstanding the evidence (i.e. the portraits), what if Sor Juana were an actual monster? Fabre considers these questions and takes them to their grizzly conclusion. If Sor Juana were a monster, she would devour los sorjuanistas. And she does, at the end of the poem. Expanding her wings, Sor Juana descends on los sorjuanistas and murders every last one (except Margo Glantz):

 

Sorjuanistas: ¡cuidado!

Y
otra vez:
sorjuanistas: ¡cuidado!

Porque una noche, una sombra
piramidal, funesta, se cernirá sobre nosotros:
Sor Juana desplegará sus alas tanto tiempo ocultas
bajo el hábito

y ante la incapacidad de los sorjuanistas
para responder coherentemente a su enigma
devorará a los sorjuanistas ya sin metáforas de por
medio.

 

[Sor Juana scholars: be careful!

And
once again:
Sor Juana scholars: be careful!

Because one night, a shadow—
pyramidal, disastrous—will hover above us:
Sor Juana will unfurl the wings hidden for so long
beneath her habit

and in light of the inability of Sor Juana scholars
to respond coherently to her enigma
she will devour the Sor Juana scholars, now with no
metaphors to mediate.]

 

Readers will recognize the allusion to Primero sueño in the fifth and sixth lines. By portraying Sor Juana as an image from one of her poems, Fabre models how scholars conflate Sor Juana with her oeuvre so as to comprehend her. The motley interpretations devised by los sorjuanistas have made a monster out of Sor Juana, but this monster has outrun its handlers.

Unframed from her fictional world, Sor Juana punishes los sorjuanistas for failing to solve her poetic and biographical enigmas. But in crossing the boundary between fiction and reality Sor Juana does not become more legible but less. Fabre imagines what the police will make of the onslaught: they will survey the scene bewildered and “the press will attribute it,/ for example,/to political paybacks,/to fanatical literature students,/to hitmen settling scores…” [“la prensa la adjudicará,/por ejemplo,/a venganzas políticas,/a estudiantes de letras fanatizados,/a ajustes de cuentas entre sicarios…”]. Scholars’ inability to solve Sor Juana’s enigma is reflected in the indeterminacy of their sudden deaths. By way of this analogy, the consequences of inconclusive investigations become very real, since, as Pluecker writes, to speak of killings and murders, terror and mystery in the context of contemporary Mexico is to bring a slew of other ghosts into the room”. In this scenario, los sorjuanistas join the thousands of persons missing across Mexico. How to begin to imagine their disappearance? And how to situate the resurrection of Sor Juana in this present-day context? The 174 bodies found in a hidden grave in Veracruz last month have not all been identified. Can we say these disinterred bodies have been resurrected? Indeed, the analogy falls to pieces in light of its incommensurable terms.

Fabre is committed to reanimating the dead so that the living can see what they have forgotten and ignored. Elsewhere, in a larger collection from which these poems are drawn, Fabre characterizes zombies as “a new opportunity/for society to demonstrate/its complicity and corruption” [“una nueva oportunidad/para que la sociedad demuestre/su complicidad y corrupción” (my translation)]. Metaphors and tropes help make invisible bodies available for identification. They make them visible, but dimly, as if through a shroud.

Ultimately, Fabre seems less interested in passing judgment on los sorjuanistas than pondering the disappearance of Sor Juana into her material history. Given that “Sor Juana’s body/has still not been found” , Fabre stages the drama of decoding the life of Sor Juana using only a portfolio of poetry, portraits, hearsay, and myth. The inimitable icon of the Hispanic Baroque has bled into her verbal and visual reproductions.

Nowhere in the chapbook is that more evident than the mash-up poems. These three pastiches appropriate verses, imagery, and figures from Sor Juana’s oeuvre, enfolding Sor Juana in her own paraphernalia. Continuing with the horror motif, Fabre writes the first mash-up from the perspective of a woman (probably Sor Juana) who is visited by lady phantoms in the night and experiences her soul returning to her body. The second mash-up imitates the esdrújula-heavy romance, “Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato,” to render a monstrous ekphrasis of Sor Juana’s portraits. The final mash-up centers on the daughters of Minyas, transformed by Dionysus into bats, who make a cameo in Primero sueño.

Is Fabre performing unabashed appropriation? Is he dramatizing the enduring literary re-fashioning of Mexico’s most famous nun, practiced by Sor Juana herself? It is difficult to know exactly what Fabre’s “angle” is behind the mash-ups. Ironic appropriation? Social critique? But this remains clear: the chapbook honors the hybridity that Sor Juana cultivated in her work. “Fabre’s poems are built out of seventeenth century octosyllabic tetrameter and pulp novels, out of horror movie trailers and pompous academic papers, out of Medusas and dreams, Bat Sisters and rhymes,” writes Pluecker. Not only do the mash-ups refract Sor Juana through the prism of Fabre’s imagination but also her own. Fabre mixes high and low-brow references and fantasy with erudition much as Sor Juana did in the 17th century. His poetry channels Sor Juana’s interest in semantics, book learning, monstrosity, metamorphosis, and above all, discursive difficulty.

The present-day reader of Sor Juana faces yet another riddle: reading her poetry in translation. By way of conclusion, I want to consider how translation compounds the problems surrounding Sor Juana’s fraught resurrection. Pluecker’s translations provide a different setting for discursively staging the return of the dead. As Pluecker writes: “A translation begins with an enigma. A mystery. Sor Juana posits an enigma here: an unanswerable question”. À la Sor Juana, Pluecker frames his approach to translation as a puzzle, beginning with the following question: “How to translate the verses of Sor Juana as we remember—as Fabre reminds us constantly—that there is an infinity of Sor Juanas?”. Pluecker’s response is to recover what other translators have foregone: rhyme. By conveying the doggerel of both Fabre’s and Sor Juana’s verses, Pluecker recuperates the comedic aspect of Sor Juana’s poetry, which translators have previously downplayed at the risk of composing “bad translations.” Pluecker does not shy away from such “bad” practices and considers it important for the poems “to rumble a bit, to stumble around, and yes, to delight doggedly in doggerel”. Totalizing the meaning of Sor Juana’s verse is a problem for the translator as well as the student of Sor Juana. Choosing to convey one sense runs the risk of eliminating numerous alternatives. A part of Sor Juana is “killed” as another is brought to life. However, coming to terms with Sor Juana inevitably involves translating her into another language, and this process defines literary history, Pluecker suggests. He writes: “As Fabre tweeted recently (and I translate), ‘Perhaps what we call literature is nothing more than the long story of bad translations.’ So I present these bad translations of the bad translations that are these bad poems. Perhaps killers and killed all”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rivky Mondal is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation (she hopes) will articulate the contemporary stakes of philosophies surrounding literature and aesthetic emotion. She is also a freelance copyeditor as well as co-coordinator of the 20th and 21st Century Cultures Workshop at Chicago.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 29th, 2018.