The Mind In Delicate Delusion


Mark Wagner
Collage made from one dollar bills by Mark Wagner


by Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Philip Larkin, “Money” from Collected Poems. Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin.  Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd.

Sonnet 145

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651 – 1695)

Éste que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores,
es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

éste en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y, venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado;

es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

What you see here is colorful illusion,
an art boasting of beauty and its skill,
which in false reasoning of color will
pervert the mind in delicate delusion.
Here where the flatteries of paint engage
to vitiate the horrors of the years,
where softening the rust of time appears
to triumph over oblivion and age,
all is vain, careful disguise of clothing,
it is a slender blossom in the gale,
it is a futile port for doom reserved,
it is a foolish labor that can only fail:
it is a wasting zeal and, well observed,
is corpse, is dust, is shadow, and is nothing.

Translated by Willis Barnstone.




The Dream

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Bronze statue of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in Oeste Park in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a self-taught scholar, poet and Hieronymite nun.  She was born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana near Mexico City. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish Captain, Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, and a Criollo woman, Isabel Ramírez. She was raised by her Mother and her Mother’s family, her father not a presence in her life.

Her abilities as a savant were evident immediately.  She learned how to read and write at the age of three. By age five, she reportedly was accomplished in math and learning biology. At age eight, she composed a poem on the Eucharist. She spent her childhood and adolescence hiding in the chapel to read her grandfather’s books from the adjoining library, something that was forbidden to girls. By 12, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. During this time she also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote poems in the ancient language.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote about her constant wish as a young woman to be allowed to further her education. In 1664, at age 16, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz went to live in Mexico City. She asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could enter the university. Her Mother denied her repeated requests, and not being allowed to do so, she continued her studies privately. She came under the sponsorship of the Vicereine Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. The viceroy, wishing to test the knowledge and intelligence of this 17-year-old, invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting, during which she had to answer, unprepared, many questions on various scientific and literary subjects. Her breadth of knowledge astonished the assembled group and her reputation was made in Mexico City.  As her accomplishments grew she garnered fame throughout New Spain. She declined several proposals of marriage and in 1667, she entered a monastery of the Carmelite nuns as a postulant as a way to remain independent and continue learning. She chose not to enter that Order permanently as a result of its strict rules. In 1669, she entered a monastery of the Hieronymite nuns which allowed her more freedom to continue her intellectual pursuits.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was an astonishing intellect and a unique figure for her time. She championed the idea of women’s education taught by women scholars as a path to a more balanced and complete society. Her poetry is notable for its strident intensity on a far range of topics, including erotic lesbian love. Although writing what we would consider same-sex love poems to a benefactor or friend was not uncommon in that period by men or woman, Sor Juana Ines de la cruz made it very clear the depth of her love for the vicereine. Her unconventional nature and intellect became a threat to the male power structure.  She conducted a salon from her chambers in the monastery that drew important thinkers of her day in Mexico City in what could be considered equivalent to the intellectual salons of 20th century Paris.

Not surprisingly, she drew critics who felt threatened by her feminist writing. In response, she wrote a letter, in which she defended a woman’s right to education. In response, the Archbishop of Mexico joined other high-ranking officials in condemning Sor Juana’s “waywardness”. By 1693, Sor Juana seemingly ceased writing rather than risk official censure. However, there is no evidence of her renouncing her devotion to working privately, though she agreed to penance. At the end of the her life, she relented from the constant political pressure and sold all her books, an extensive library of over 4,000 volumes, and her musical and scientific instruments as well. She died after ministering to other nuns stricken with plague during an epidemic in April, 1695.

Unfortunately, portions of her writing and poetry was lost, but some was saved in the library of the vicereine. Here are a few snippets of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s brilliance in her own words translated into English.

The Dream

by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

(Excerpt – final lines of her nearly 1,000 line poem)

Finally, Dusk could see, at last
a vision of the fugitive pass,
and — with her zeal on the mend
from ruin forces a second wind–
and she, in that half globe where the Sun
withdrew the sheltering garrison
rebelling again, makes up her mind
to seize the crown a second time,
while in our hemisphere a skein
of golden Sunlight shines again,
and with its fair judicious light
distributes equally and shares
with all things visible their hues,
and with this restoration makes
the exterior senses operate
more certainly, as daylight breaks
on the illumined World and I – awake.

Translated by Elwin Wirkala

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz response to her critics:

“I do not study in order to write, and even less to teach—which, in me, would be colossal arrogance—but rather only to see if by studying I can be less ignorant. This is my answer and this is what I feel. God graced me with of a gift of an immense love for the truth)—is that since the first light of reason dawned on me my inclination toward letters was so intense and powerful that neither reprimands by others, of which I have had many, nor self-reflection, of which I have done not a little, have been sufficient for me to stop pursuing this natural impulse that God put in me.

God Almighty knows why and for what purpose. And he knows I’ve asked him to snuff out the light of my mind and leave only what’s necessary to keep his commandments. Some would say that any more is too much in a woman, and some even say that it is harmful. The Almighty also knows that, since my request failed, I have tried to bury my intellect along with my name and to sacrifice all this only to the one who gave it to me. For no other reason I entered a religious order even though its duties and fellowship were anathema to the unhindered quietude required by my studious intent…..

Therefore, if the evil lies in verses being used by a woman, we have already seen how many women have used them commendably. Then, what is the problem with me being one? Of course, I confess my baseness and my base, vile nature; but I maintain that no one has ever seen an indecent poem of mine. Moreover, I have never written anything of my own volition, but rather at the request or directive of others. As a result the only thing I recall writing for my own pleasure is a little piece called The Dream.”

Excerpts from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz

You Foolish Men

by Sur Juana Ines de la Cruz

You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.

You fight their stubbornness,
then, weightily,
you say it was their lightness
when it was your guile.

In all your crazy shows
you act like a child
who plays the bogeyman
of which he’s then afraid.

With foolish arrogance
you hope to find a Thais
in her you court, but a Lucretia
when you’ve possessed her.

What kind of mind is odder
than his who mists
a mirror and then complains
that it’s not clear.

Their favour and disdain
you hold in equal state,
if they mistreat, you complain,
you mock if they treat you well.

No woman wins esteem of you:
the most modest is ungrateful
if she refuses to admit you;
yet if she does, she’s loose.

You always are so foolish
your censure is unfair;
one you blame for cruelty
the other for being easy.

What must be her temper
who offends when she’s
ungrateful and wearies
when compliant?

But with the anger and the grief
that your pleasure tells
good luck to her who doesn’t love you
and you go on and complain.

Your lover’s moans give wings
to women’s liberty:
and having made them bad,
you want to find them good.

Who has embraced
the greater blame in passion?
She who, solicited, falls,
or he who, fallen, pleads?

Who is more to blame,
Though either should do wrong?
She who sins for pay
or he who pays to sin?

Why be outraged at the guilt
that is of your own doing?
Have them as you make them
or make them what you will.

Leave off your wooing
and then, with greater cause,
you can blame the passion
of her who comes to court?

Patent is your arrogance
that fights with many weapons
since in promise and insistence
you join world, flesh and devil.

Translation – Copyright © 2004 by Michael Smith. Shearsman Books Ltd.

I Fell Victim To Your Tyranny

Current 200 Peso Mexican Bank Note with Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
1983 1000 Peso Mexican Bank Note with Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo,
imagen del hechizo que más quiero,
bella ilusión por quien alegre muero,
dulce ficción por quien penosa vivo.

Si al imán de tus gracias, atractivo,
sirve mi pecho de obediente acero,
¿para qué me enamoras lisonjero
si has de burlarme luego fugitivo?

Mas blasonar no puedes, satisfecho,
de que triunfa de mí tu tiranía
que aunque dejas burlado el lazo estrecho

que tu forma fantástica ceñía,
poco importa burlar brazos y pecho
si te labra prisión mi fantasía.

Sonnet 165

by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651 – 1695)

Stay, shadow of contentment too short-lived,
illusion of enchantment I most prize,
fair image for whom I happily die,
sweet fiction for whom I painfully live.
If to your sweet charms attracted I submit,
obedient, like steel to magnet fly,
by what logic do you flatter and entice,
only to flee, a taunting fugitive?
‘Tis no triumph that you so smugly boast
that I fell victim to your tyranny;
though from encircling bonds that held you fast
your elusive form too readily slipped free,
and though to my arms you are forever lost,
you are a prisoner in my fantasy.

I was in San Miguel de Yendes, Mexico last week on business.   I had the good fortune to be traveling and working alongside several local soil scientists discussing the needs for better crop nutrition in Mexico.  The diversity of crops and cropping systems in Mexico are remarkable. I was very impressed with the professionalism, deep knowledge and passion of the agronomists, crop consultants and farmers that I met during my trip.

Although my focus for the short trip was business, I hope to return when I have more time to soak up the incredible culture, cuisine and heritage of the two colonial cities I saw briefly. Guanajuato and San Miguel are both UNESCO world heritage sites and amazing places to visit.

I was struck by a simple contrast between the culture of Mexico and the culture of the United States when I exchanged some money for the trip after landing in Leon.  A 200 peso note is equivalent approximately to a 10 dollar bill in value and common in circulation.  The United States bank notes feature a long line of dead presidents; the ten dollar bill specifically Thomas Jefferson.  The Mexican 200 peso note has Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz; a poet, nun, feminist, playwright and one of the most iconic writers of colonial Mexico during the Golden Age of Spanish literature in the 1500 and 1600’s.

This simple contrast illustrates one of the differences in our societies. Mexican culture values the arts and uses their 200 peso banknote to honor their rich cultural history, while the United States showcases a racist slave owner on its ten-dollar bill. Thomas Jefferson may have been an abolitionist from the beginning of the republic, but central to his promotion of ending slavery was the idea of emancipation for all blacks back to Africa, as he did not believe whites and blacks could live peacefully together in the newly formed United States.

Why does the United States only feature dead white ex-presidents, most of whom no longer represent the values of our diverse culture?  Other countries change their bank notes with great regularity and use that opportunity to stay abreast of the changing norms and attitudes of their current society.   The United States should rethink the images on its currency and the messages they convey,  when we cling to outdated political leaders as the only people worthy to be printed on our currency.   Maybe it is time Americans take a page from many other countries around the world and showcase poets, painters and cultural icons on their national currency, not just dead, narrow-minded, wealthy, white male politicians.

Israel’s 20 shekel note with Rachel Bluwstein, equivalent to about $5.50 American dollars.


by Rachel Bluwstein (1890 – 1931)

Perhaps it was never so.
I never woke early and went to the fields
To labor in the sweat of my brow

Nor in the long blazing days
Of harvest
On top of the wagon laden with sheaves,
Made my voice ring with song

Nor bathed myself clean in the calm
Blue water
Of my Kinneret. O, my Kinneret,
Were you there or did I only dream?

I Came To My Senses

Sur Juana
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695)


Love Opened A Mortal Wound

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Love opened a mortal wound.
In agony, I worked the blade
to make it deeper. Please,
I begged, let death come quick.

Wild, distracted, sick,
I counted, counted
all the ways love hurt me.
One life, I thought – – a thousand deaths.

Blow after blow, my heart
couldn’t survive this beating.
Then – how can I explain it?

I came to my senses.  I said,
Why do I suffer?  What lover
ever had so much pleasure?

Con el dolor de la moral herida,
de un agravio de amor me lamentaba;
y por ver si la muerte se llegaba,
procuraba que fuese más crecida.

Toda en el mal el alma divertida,
pena por pena su dolor sumaba,
y en cada circunstancia ponderaba
que sobrarban mil muertes a una vida.

Y cuando, al golpe de uno y otro tiro,
rendido el corazón daba penoso
señas de dar el último suspiro,

no sé con qué destino prodigioso
volví en mi acuerdo y dije:–¿Qué me admiro?
¿Quién en amor ha sido más dichoso?