Juana I

BY Ana Arzoumanian

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ISBN: 9780999719800 (2018)

“What I need is a mouth.” So begins Ana Arzoumanian’s epic about Juana I, the reluctant and nominal queen of a newly emergent 16th Century Spain.

Passionate and intelligent, Juana unexpectedly inherits the throne and becomes trapped in a power clash between her father and her husband. Juana’s fiery relationship with both men bubbles to the surface in the poem’s delirious voice; her story unfolding in the context of an arduous cortege accompanying her husband’s corpse to Granada.

Tales of Juana’s lack of self-control while in Flanders had already reached Spain. Now the rumors really started to fly: She sleeps in the coffin alongside her dead husband! She wets herself! She fasts on the Jewish Sabbath! Arzoumanian renders both the rumors and the accompanying 16th Century juridical texts in italics, as though they were distant whispers.

Juana’s narrative blurs fact and imagination, as she conflates past with present, brother with father and husband, and marriage bed with childhood bathtub and royal coffin. This leaves us to wonder, was Juana truly la loca, or was her mental state the consequence of incredible personal loss, abuse and trauma? Or, were the accusations of madness merely a ploy to suppress her voice? In her own time, the courts judged against Juana and sentenced her to confinement for over forty years. Five centuries later, Arzoumanian’s powerful verse and provocative imagery is another sort of justice, one that gives a mouth to the silenced.

Juana was born in Toledo in 1479. She was the titular Queen of Castile from 1504 (when her mother, Isabella the Catholic, died) until her own death in 1555. Judged insane by history, and placed under house arrest in Tordesillas for over forty years, Juana was the object of political machinations designed to deprive her of power. Her mental health became the focus of a struggle between her father, Ferdinand the Catholic, and her husband, Philip the Fair, over the right to rule her kingdom. With the sudden death of her young husband, a new crisis unfolded in Juana’s life . . . one that was marked by an eight-month funereal procession through Castile (during which she refused to bury his corpse). This is the jumping off point for Arzoumanian’s piece, a poetic lens through which we witness a marked development in Juana’s language. The first-person narration becomes lost amid whispers; it is an “I” that, even as it is deprived of its content, continues to insist on its need to speak. Although judged and condemned by her peers, the question of Juana in Arzoumanian’s poem consists of a series of moments where history and the world interweave, and a new language is born along the way.The ideological leaders of Juana’s time were reacting to the monarchy’s expansionistic politics: the discovery of America, the first circumnavigation of the world, the decrees expelling the Jews in 1492 and the Moors in 1501. Juana I is a love poem that deals with a beloved’s body as an object on the margins of the legal body; it is a tapestry-poem that exposes the reader to the bare emotions of a story about domination and cruelty. The poem works at the deepest levels of language, articulating the speech of Castile and its legal echoes as taken from The Seven-Part Code of Laws, a juridical code that unified the Kingdom with South America via the Castilian language. It is justice.

Juana I is translated by Gabriel Amor and published here in a fully bilingual edition, Arzoumanian’s debut full-length publication in North America.

Ana Arzoumanian is a prolific and celebrated poet, but is or has also been known as: a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars; a professor at the International Postgraduate Program in Creative Writing, Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences; a Lacanian psychoanalyst; and a professor of Philosophy of Law at the Universidad del Salvador, Faculty of Legal Sciences of Buenos Aires. And as an active member of the first course of arbitration in Argentina, dictated by the National Direction of Training and Communication of the Ministry of Justice of the Nation in 1992, she was selected advisor in the Ministry of Justice of the Nation. Arzoumanian remains an active literary and theatre critic, and has traveled extensively to read her own poetry, as well as to collaborate on the documentary A Dialogue Without Borders on the Armenian genocide and the disappeared under the Argentine military dictatorship. Inspired by the tale of Juana the Mad, Queen of Spain, Juana I was adapted for the stage by Román Caracciolo, as La que necesita una boca. This book is the first full-length English language translation of her work to be published in North America.

Born in Galicia, Spain, Gabriel Amor has lived in New York since the age of five.  He has published translations of poetry and prose by numerous Latin American writers, and received a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his work on Juana I.  Gabriel has collaborated with other artists on multimedia performances and was a producer on the Emmy-nominated documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There.  He is currently Program Director of Postbaccalaureate Studies at Columbia University.

Lili Zemborain:

This book opens with a blank page containing a line that is repeated like a mantra throughout the text: “What I need is a mouth.” As if the mouth, absent from the body, had lost its capacity to speak. Yet the text emits many voices, imagining the circumstances that surrounded the figure of Juana the Mad, the legitimate Queen of Spain in the first half of the XVI century, who was declared insane then silenced and confined to a convent.   Ana Arzoumanian subsumes us in a dense and powerful atmosphere in which the liberated mouth unveils with an abject heroism that could be called feminine, the tensions that historical circumstances impose over bodies.   Gabriel Amor’s translation, developed over the course of a decade, registers the rhythms and tones of this beautifully carved tragedy with unmatched skill.

Laura Moriarty:

JUANA I is a book of many perfections but it is not an easy book to read. Ana Arzoumanian uses the story of JUANA I of Castile (1479-1555) who, as the wife of one king and the mother of another, was imprisoned, tortured, and stripped of power to convey the experiences of the many others who were brutalized by the Spanish Empire. The book’s rendition of history into poetic lines and paragraphs is effective and compelling.

“What I need is a mouth.

I need a mouth the enamel of teeth your saliva.

Blood has stopped flowing to your lips.

I kiss the air, the locks of hair, the Virgin Mary; I kiss the right foot of Saint Peter.

I run ropes through the gates of your body, I pull on a rope to open your pupils and let in the light.

She is mad.”

This work, beautifully translated by Gabriel Amor, speaks as Juana but eventually also speaks for and of slaves, indigenous people, Jews who were expelled from Spain, and others pursued, injured and often murdered by the men who ran the world they lived in.

“I will spread the word. They have found babies tied to their mothers’ backs. Skeletons with pieces of hair stuck to their skull. Church roofs. No. The sky of what is called America splattered with blood. Ditches and crows and bones folded back inside.”

Gorgeously published in a bilingual edition by Kenning Editions, JUANA I is a great introduction to Ana Arzoumanian, a major Argentine writer and activist against genocide. It is also almost a textbook of how to write poetry about history in a way that addresses the urgent issues of our time. The work reads like a one-woman play and has been performed as such. And it is an amazing poem.