Sor Juana

They gather her books to their dark bodies. The abbey lies like an open mouth in the heat, as if startled.

A harp must be broken in four places to be rendered silent: so. The legs. The arm. The back finally: so.

The men stack the pieces and pad them with the books, which they have stripped of their bindings. Revealed, the spines are uniformly crude: flaking strings across pale cloth.

Her long window opens onto the courtyard where they do this but nobody has yet looked up to see if she is there, cooling, plaiting her hair for Vespers, or has vanished into a silence.

The cart grows heavy and strains with weight along its haunch. How can one woman have so many books instruments globes the size of curled badgers maps.

The abbess seeing her room cleansed thought of a shaven head with its crufts and sores.

The cart departs down the long hill which is called in the town The Wolf’s Spine.

The nuns raise their heads from where ever so carefully they had been chasing a single mouse by the tail through the holy texts, lunging. They gather their hot skirts and go in.


This is her process of thinking:

A woman needs solitude to write and think, and she has no solitude, for here is God in the room. Here is God in the chair and on the desks and wiping a face along the inside of the mirror: so.

Thus: two choices. Build walls within God. (This is a false choice.) Or abandon the room.

Functionally this could be called penance but the traditional notifications of penance here (white robe, shorn hair, bare feet, waxed hands) are absent. Thus the nuns are confused.

Sister Magdalena on giving her the evening meal in her quarters finds her asleep naked with her back towards the door. Hair knotted. A gesture of humiliation. Discomfort.

It is not widely believed. Sor Juana voice of Mexico turned dumb turned stone turned weird and inviolate as bone – no. It is her cleverness. It is her game.

And so still friends from court arrive feathered and dressed, singing, asking for audiences. It is the Abbess who says to them quietly (from her own rooms) She will not come. She is undergoing a love for God.

A woman who loved her in the King’s court stands in the courtyard and shrieks. Think what we risked to visit! The nuns enclose themselves and stare from grates like birds.

Meanwhile Sor Juana is at the basin with her head underwater.


The day proceeds like this.



Breakfast (shivering.)


Reading of the holy book.

Luncheon (if a holy day.)


Confession where one scours oneself free of poorness and emerges soft like parsley.



She cannot confess. She is she explains not needing a voice to point towards the healing of sins. There is no closeness sharper than her present state. God heats her skin.

The Abbess knows and allows this. Seeing mourning staring at her, shining.

In her howling nakedness of mind she searches the exterior fields for a loosened page. A single theorem or letter. She comes back muddened, stricken.

The Abbess does not know or allow this.

The final object (Sor Juana plucks out her fine eyebrows and kneels) is a hopefulness. The empty mind for God like a platter.

What is the condition of death in sin is one of the last poems she wrote.


The bishop in his fragrant rooms sends word that the nun-prophetess is crushed. He feels touching his forehead faintly ill.

In the abbey here is Sor Juana in her tongue-wound of silence. Eating an apple down to the core. The abbess watching.

She holds still in herself. Visitors trickle and cease. The abbey yields itself to the deep pendulum of the year: winter, passing by the back of the neck.

The nuns layer their smocks, give heavy heft to sleeves and furs, will not see their own vegetable-white skins now for months. They sit in their pews and are muffled bells.

Outside the grounds seal over with great scours of frost. Sor Juana takes to walking early in the morning in long circuits around the abbey. The rhythms of grammar are in the mechanics of walking. Structured.

Silent but pleasured she writes her way around the wall.

Flood of contrition: evening meal. The full length of sweat under her nun-pelt, steaming. The other nuns converse as if language were not the tropics, sultry, gasping, suckling between the legs.

God rendered us split from our own tongue.


It is now (onioned in her cloaks, mouth’s lining beginning to develop sores from being so perpetually shut) that she begins the winter garden.

A single patch.

A baldness.

Clearing she bends, takes snow in bared hands, places it in buckets. Smoothes the dirt apart like hair. Plunges fingers, stabbing.

The abbess observes this.

Truthfully they had all been waiting for a redemptive narrative: the adoption of a dog. Of a novice. Some project to solve it. Lost to found: the simple transition.

Sor Juana refuses this. Remains lost. On her knees before the sodden mud.

Sticks like this:

I     I     I     I
I     I     I     I
I     I     I     I
I     I     I     I

- herself repeated. She breaks their necks to a similar brutal shape and gores them to the mound. A set of unfeeling ciphers. By now nobody mistakes it for penance.

The farm-bred kettle-thighed nuns (rising like steam from their holy books) see patterns of the crop-tend; expect the sticks to bud.

An animal finds the hollow and settles. Crushes the stick-flock. Sor Juana who will be silent until she dies daubs her scorched hands, unbandages them, sweet in the light.

Wind scours – rebuild.

Blizzard – rebuild.

Night flood – rebuild.

Digging she thinks loss: you and I are coming to know another. Reiteration is the code for love. Kill and kill and kill.

The abbess drinks good thick soups and washes her short hands.

In the middle of the night on Sor Juana’s plot she replants a tree which is hardy and strange and will live regardless. Blood in long scratches down her hard bone legs. Metaphor is sin she thinks, foot-deep in snow. God’s love is ever.

The sticks she drops in her pocket. Burns.


Spring comes. The book merchants arrive, backs swinging, donkeys thick with text. Where is the learned scholar? We have come with the latest books. They have been travelling the year; have not heard. Taking their tea in the courtyard they consider their shadows carefully.

Where is Sor Juana?

Sor Juana is nowhere answers the abbess. She points: the herd of nuns in the swaddling dark, bent with their ears to their books.

The same face. Listening with arms folded ever so politely for the hum.