Green Enchantment (Verde Embeleso) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 2 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

 

Watch on Vimeo.

Green enchantment of every human life,
mad hope, delirious golden fever,
convoluted sleep of the sleepless
where dream and treasure are equally elusive;

soul of this world, leafy senescence,
decrepit fantasy of green
that the happy call today
and the unhappy, tomorrow:

let those who wear green glasses
and see everything just as their desire paints it
chase your shadow in search of a new morning.

For my part, I’ll give fate the greater latitude,
keep eyes in both my hands
and look no farther than I can touch.

My translation of the sonnet “Verde embeleso de la vida humana” (1688) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I first shared it in a blog post back in 2007: “Through green glasses.” Rather than simply re-posting it, I decided to add value by making a videopoem, and roped in my Via Negativa co-author Luisa Igloria to contribute a reading for the soundtrack. The norm for videopoems of translated texts is to put the original language in the soundtrack and the translation in subtitles, but I decided to reverse that here, just as an experiment. I wanted to make the poem feel less foreign to an English-language audience.

I thought of the poem only after I filmed the meadow footage featured in the video. (That’s my parents’ front lawn. Dad always waits to mow until after the dandelions and ajuga are done blooming; they share my general preference for weeds over boring grass.) I love films with long, stationary or slowly panning shots in which the world is simply going about its business, and the original plan for this videopoem was to have that, the titling, and nothing else. But mid-way through the editing process, I woke up early one morning with the idea of adding crowds of people as an overlay. One thing led to another, I found some crazy-ass 1960s TV ads in the Prelinger Archives, and by last night I finally had something I was happy with. For the music, I used a public-domain guitar interpretation of Albéniz from Wikimedia, reasoning that something from the 19th century would help bridge the gap between the 17th and 21st centuries. For the same reason, I used a contemporary-looking font with serifs.

To my mind, a videopoem that doesn’t reinterpret the text in a manner different from what its author intended isn’t a real videopoem. But as Lorca much later showed, verde (green) is one of those words with an almost unlimited number of connotations. So this is more than a translation; it’s a complete re-imagining. Then again, human nature hasn’t changed in the last 400 years, and deciding to live in the moment rather than living in hope is, if anything, wiser than ever.

Through green glasses

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

paper cranes

Yesterday was the coldest morning so far this year; all the public schools were on a two-hour delay, and the streets were nearly deserted. I sat at a table in the bookstore window, waiting for one of the music stores to open so I could buy a new harmonica. Long strings of colorful paper cranes hung between me and the street — not quite a thousand of them, but nonetheless intended, I think, as a concrete expression of hope for peace.

I had just picked up a a bilingual selection of poems by the great 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated by Alan S. Trueblood: A Sor Juana Anthology. As I’d remembered from his translation of Antonio Machado, Trueblood is a competent but not very imaginative translator, which is fine for my purposes: I’d prefer to have to struggle through the Spanish, referring to the English only for help with vocabulary.

I opened the book to this sonnet, an indictment of shallow faith:

Verde embeleso de la vida humana,
loca esperanza, frenesí­ dorado,
sueño de los despiertos intricado,
como de sueños, de tesoros vana;

alma del mundo, senectud lozana,
decrépito verdor imaginado;
el hoy de los dichosos esperado
y de los desdichados el mañana:

sigan tu sombra en busca de tu dí­a
los que, con verdes vidrios por anteojos,
todo lo ven pintado a su deseo;

que yo, más cuerda en la fortuna mí­a,
tengo en entrambas manos ambos ojos
y solamente lo que toco veo.

After I bought the harmonica, I had a little bit of time to kill before lunch, so I went for a brisk walk. The temperature had risen to perhaps 10 degrees (F), but the sidewalks were still pretty empty. I walked around the west end of town, trying to remember all the front porches on which I had partied at one time or another. I counted twelve. I didn’t feel in the least bit nostalgic, though: that was fun while it lasted, but after a while I felt I had heard just about every conversation it was possible to have while drunk.

I slowed down to admire a line of large sycamore trees. On one of them, some artist had mounted a pair of green eyes — verdes vidrios, indeed! I resolved to attempt a translation, however inadequate, of Sister Juana’s poem.

sycamore face

Green enchantment of every human life,
mad hope, delerious gold fever,
convoluted sleep of the sleepless
where dream and treasure are equally elusive;

soul of this world, leafy senescence,
decrepit fantasy of green
that the happy call today
and the unhappy, tomorrow:

let those who wear green glasses
and see everything just as their desire paints it
chase your shadow in search of a new morning.

For my part, I’ll give fate the greater latitude,
keep eyes in both my hands
and look no farther than I can touch.