1. THE PRIEST
grandmother murphy’s father confessor said smiling from the head of the table at me even if all i’d done was growl i don’t taste with my stomach as i cast my eyes down at my plate not out of any good girl reticence but in disgust at my dinner served all mixed together cranberries and sweet potatoes with their marshmallow topping together with turkey and its dressing maybe broccoli or string beans something green anyway boiled to deep olive because my uncle not really my uncle had just told me not to complain of that awful mess it would all be mixed up in my stomach anyway so the priest’s words were really only meant to save me from the next step of self-induced exile from the table that go to your room until you’re ready to eat waiting on the tongue tip of uncle or aunt it would have been a long hunger strike i was ready and willing to take any punishment except for that food they might put on a dish i was trying to save my life i’d already seen myself reflected in the aluminum base of the powerful new three speed osterizer in the kitchen that fifties new year’s the millionth waring blender was sold heard the enthusiasm in my aunt’s voice as the motor took up its rumble when she allowed me to add some forgotten ingredient and turn it on knew this was the fate they all wanted for me that awful mixed up slop to fatten on and then the blades to grind me up all thrown in with every girly girl in their neighbourhood maybe in their whole city so we would all come out the same my little snippet of puppy dog tail disappearing into all the sugar and spice to make an easier cookie dough to cut up and bake than the one my aunt had been working on and i would no longer be something so hard to swallow they’d have to push me to the edge of their plates
2. THE NUN
so that i did have to appreciate father farell’s rescue attempt that temporary respite at least for a dinner even if father confessor that he was sitting there at my almost uncle’s right hand the way he always did when he was a guest the truth is he likely hadn’t said would at all but would have already accepted in his words that past unreal conditional as if the potential for my life had already passed you would have made a good jesuit he must have said that ‘have’ its tiny point in grammar its tinier change in pronunciation just an ‘of’ sounded or even an ‘a’ would’ve or woulda already telling me that even if he’d managed to keep me in my place at the table still in that world there was nowhere else to go but to my room my small if nicely flounced cell upstairs he already knew i’d make no kind of jesuit at all no place for a girl in his order or for that matter his law the rule he followed what might make me ask myself years later as i read her work could he see in me what father confessor nuñez de miranda another jesuit could see in juana inés the brilliant girl he persuaded into the convent to become sor juana still the best known and most beloved of the colonial poets of the americas then forced to recant her learning before the inquisition sign in her own blood yo la peor de todas i the worst of all to make me imagine her standing in front of her molcajete that large volcanic stone mortar denizens of mexico city still jokingly call la licuadora azteca the aztec blender her wimpled presence reflected not in any aluminum base but in the fragmented glints off the fresh juice of the tomatoes she grinds to make one of her renowned moles inside her cell in the hieronomite convent the order of saint jerome back then in the seventeenth century the early enlightenment yet another institution for the warehousing of learned women while juana inés wonders if inside her heavy habit she too will be forced to grind herself up with all the rest to be made more palatable nuñez de miranda and his church wanting her to write saintly girly sanctus sancti santa teresa de avila hildegard von bingen sacred verse while instead she will pen her seriously secular feminist lines any mexican schoolchild even in the sixties could recite who is more to blame she asks ¿la que peca por la paga o el que paga por pecar? she who sins for pay or he who pays to sin but how should i know
3. THE GIRL
that or what father farell s.j. saw right then as he looked at me what smaller spark it was i didn’t even know to call a whore a whore even if in my own neighourhood back home there were a bunch and my mother called one often enough puta e hija de puta by her live in mexican lover paul garcía in words i didn’t yet understand while all i knew looking down at that mixed up mess now grown cold was i was never going to confess to anything sins or vices thoughts or acts major or minor mortal or venial my own or those of others not even the names of kevin barry’s brave companions much less those of the boys from the catholic school across the street the ones i didn’t know to ask even for a dime when we played doctor together under the stoop next door not the way the eyes of the table were on me looking past the pink plastic butterfly barrette in my boy short hair and the lace collar of the new dress my aunt had insisted on buying to my torn cuticles and my eyes whose custody i couldn’t keep couldn’t make anywhere near convent ready couldn’t stop from looking back up and at them from under my brows like i was already a crime just waiting to be committed.
Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.
(17 December 1936 – )
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, O.S.H.
(12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695)*
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, born Juana de Asbaje, was one of the greatest poets of the baroque period, possibly too the greatest poet of colonial America. Born in the Viceroyship of New Spain (now Mexico) the bastard daughter of a criolla (colonial Spanish) ranch owner and a Spanish soldier, Sor Juana’s brilliance brought her at fifteen to the Viceroy’s court which she then departed at eighteen to join the order of Saint Jerome (OSH). From her cloister in Mexico City for over two decades with both viceregal and church support she wrote her poetry in Spanish and Nahuatl, conducted experiments in the enlightenment sciences of her time and studied the indigenous societies which surrounded her. As well, she is known as a great cook and inventor of moles, one of which, a manchamanteles, was passed to the author on good authority by a Mexican sculptor in the eighties. After a change in colonial and church administration around 1690, Sor Juana – with her Marianism, secularism and feminism – long a thorn in the side of some churchmen, lost her support and ran afoul of the Inquisition. Forced to recant and to sell her library as well as her musical and scientific instruments though not her pots, pans or molcajetes, she nonetheless continued to write. New evidence has recently come to light that indicates she remained in contact with some of her European supporters and publishers, in particular a group of Portuguese nuns who called themselves La Casa del Placer (The House of Pleasure), meaning the pleasures of the mind, of learning. Tragically, Sor Juana was never able to make a full comeback. She died only short years after doing her penance while nursing her convent sisters during one of her century’s numerous plagues. Her story of political intrigue, triumph and tragedy is not a terribly remarkable one for her time. What is remarkable is her current obscurity. It is not enough that every Mexican school child should be able to recite one or another famous verse. With the breadth and variety of her learning and accomplishments, she should be the Leonardo Da Vinci of all of the Americas. The American Phoenix she was once named. And as such, she should be the centre of conspiracy theories, secret societies, thrillers, movies, constant admiring off-hand comments about the singular genius we do not believe in. As she stares back at us out of history with her direct and scrutinizing gaze, her smile, if enigmatic, still so different from the Mona Lisa’s.
…AND A SMALL CONFESSION
That I know the unwritten rule that says you may only allude briefly in work to those your readership already knows about. Christ, The Virgin, Leonardo, Job, Caesar, perhaps Jezebel except no one knows much about this good queen anyway except her name as a synonym for evil in feminine form. Nonetheless, I forged ahead, simply for the sake of dreaming of a world in which I could refer to this greatest of poets the way you might make reference to Copernicus or Galileo.
Sor Juana, I would say.
And someone would answer, Isn’t she the one the Inquisition made sign her name in blood for asserting that women were equal in rights and aptitudes to men? How very silly of them.
And it would be as if her position on the issue were as obvious to everyone as the heliocentric solar system.
This piece was a finalist for the CBC Creative Nonfiction award and subsequently published in ROOM complete with its note.