Mapping a different star: five poems by Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral in 1945The Chilean poet, schoolteacher and diplomat Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (but curiously, not the first Mistral), and though she remains much less known in the English-speaking world than her countryman Pablo Neruda, she’s widely read in Latin America, especially her poems about motherhood. (I’ll give an example of those in the form of a videopoem made with someone else’s translation.) I have several volumes of Mistral’s poetry in English translation, and all of them have their good points, but I can only wholeheartedly recommend the most recent one: Madwomen: The “Locas mujeres” Poems of Gabriela Mistral, a bilingual edition edited and translated by Randall Couch. Written late in life, the “locas mujeres” poems are among her most complex and rewarding, and I didn’t attempt to translate any of them myself since Mr. Couch has pretty much aced them. But I did translate her earlier poem “The Foreigner,” which is a portrait kind of in that same vein, albeit more satirical. Her poems of mourning are especially effective; “One Word” (“Una palabra”) is an example. Though she was a very private person, she’s known to have been deeply affected by the suicides first of a lover in 1909, and then in 1943 of a teenaged nephew she’d raised as a son.

As a progressive reformer and early feminist with many traditional, Catholic beliefs, Mistral is difficult to pigeonhole, which means that everyone from the left to the right can claim her as their own. It would be difficult to over-emphasize her prominence in Chile, where her portrait appears on the 5000-peso bill—which would be rather akin to the U.S. putting the combined portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Emily Dickinson on the ten-dollar bill. (Not a bad idea, come to think of it.)

The Sad Mother

Video by Harry Garcia. The (uncredited) translator is Maria Giachetti, in A Gabriela Mistral Reader. Here’s the original:

La Madre Triste

Duerme, duerme, dueño mío,
sin zozobra, sin temor,
aunque no se duerma mi alma,
aunque no descanse yo.

Duerme, duerme y en la noche
seas tú menos rumor
que la hoja de la hierba,
que la seda del vellón.

Duerma en ti la carne mía,
mi zozobra, mi temblor.
En ti ciérrense mis ojos:
¡duerma en ti mi corazón!


A video of my own, made back in 2011 with a reading by Nic S. and some footage I shot of my friend L. See the original post on Via Negativa for some process notes.


I have a steadfast joy
and a joy that’s lost:
one like a rose,
the other a thorn.
That which was stolen from me
is still in my possession:
I have a steadfast joy
and a joy that’s lost,
and I’m rich with purple
and with melancholy.
Ah, how beloved is the rose,
how loving the thorn!
Like the double outline
of twin fruits,
I have a steadfast joy
and a joy that’s lost…


Tengo la dicha fiel
y la dicha perdida:
la una como rosa,
la otra como espina.
De lo que me robaron
no fui desposeída;
tengo la dicha fiel
y la dicha perdida,
y estoy rica de púrpura
y de melancolía.
¡Ay, qué amante es la rosa
y qué amada la espina!
Como el doble contorno
de dos frutas mellizas
tengo la dicha fiel
y la dicha perdida.

The Foreigner

for Francis de Miomandre

“She speaks with the lilt of her barbaric seas,
salted with who knows what wrack and sands,
prays to a formless, weightless god
and is so ancient she seems about to die.
Our garden has become foreign to us
with the cactus and clawed herbs she’s planted.
Raised on the breath of the desert,
she has loved with a white-hot passion
she never talks about, for if she told us
it would be like the map of a different star.
She will live among us for 80 years
but it will always seem as if she just arrived,
speaking a language that pants and growls
and is only understood by small animals.
And she will die in our midst
one night when her suffering is greatest
with only her fate for a pillow—
a silent, foreign death.”

La extranjera

A Francis de Miomandre

—«Habla con dejo de sus mares bárbaros,
con no sé qué algas y no sé qué arenas;
reza oración a dios sin bulto y peso,
envejecida como si muriera.
En huerto nuestro que nos hizo extraño,
ha puesto cactus y zarpadas hierbas.
Alienta del resuello del desierto
y ha amado con pasión de que blanquea,
que nunca cuenta y que si nos contase
sería como el mapa de otra estrella.
Vivirá entre nosotros ochenta años,
pero siempre será como si llega,
hablando lengua que jadea y gime
y que le entienden sólo bestezuelas.
Y va a morirse en medio de nosotros,
en una noche en la que más padezca,
con sólo su destino por almohada,
de una muerte callada y extranjera».

One Word

I have one word in my throat
and I can’t get it out, can’t get free of it
however hard its throb of blood pushes.
If I did spit it out, it would scorch the grass,
drain the lamb of blood, make birds fall from the sky.

I must excise it from my tongue,
find a beaver den
or entomb it beneath a ton of lime,
because unguarded, its flight is like the soul’s.

I don’t want to give any sign of what I’m living though
as it comes and goes with my blood,
rises and sinks with my mad breath.
My father Job may have uttered it, blazing,
but I don’t want my pathetic mouth to give it voice—
it might roll off and be discovered by the women
who go to the river, get tangled in their hair,
and leave the pitiful thickets burnt and ravaged.

I want to scatter seeds of such violence,
they’d overwhelm and smother it in one night
without leaving a single, pulverized syllable.
I want to break with it the way an adder parts
with half its teeth,

and returning home, go in and sleep—
cut free of it, severed from it—
and wake up two thousand days later,
birthed anew by sleep and oblivion,

never again to know that I’d had
a word of iodine and aluminum on my lips,
nor to recall that fateful night:
the residence in a foreign country,
the ambush, the lightning at the door,
my flesh continuing to function without a soul!

Una palabra

Yo tengo una palabra en la garganta
y no la suelto, y no me libro de ella
aunque me empuje su empellón de sangre.
Si la soltase, quema el pasto vivo,
sangra al cordero, hace caer al pájaro.

Tengo que desprenderla de mi lengua,
hallar un agujero de castores
o sepultarla con cales y cales
porque no guarde como el alma el vuelo.

No quiero dar señales de que vivo
mientras que por mi sangre vaya y venga
y suba y baje por mi loco aliento.
Aunque mi padre Job la dijo, ardiendo
no quiero darle, no, mi pobre boca
porque no ruede y la hallen las mujeres
que van al río, y se enrede a sus trenzas
y al pobre matorral tuerza y abrase.

Yo quiero echarle violentas semillas
que en una noche la cubran y ahoguen
sin dejar de ella el cisco de una sílaba.
O rompérmela así, como a la víbora
que por mitad se parte con los dientes.

Y volver a mi casa, entrar, dormirme,
cortada de ella, rebanada de ella,
y despertar después de dos mil días
recién nacida de sueño y olvido.

¡Sin saber más que tuve una palabra
de yodo y piedra-alumbre entre los labios
ni saber acordarme de una noche,
de una morada en país extranjero,
de la celada y el rayo de la puerta
y de mi carne marchando sin su alma!

The Redistribution

If they put me next to
a woman blind from birth,
I would tell her in a low voice—
so low it would be full of dust—
Sister, take my eyes.

After all, what do I need eyes for
up above, brimming with light?
In my homeland, I’ll have to don
a body made entirely of pupil,
mirror returning
one wide eye without an eyelid.

I’ll cross the country
with eyes in my hands,
the two hands happily employed
in spelling out the unseen
and naming the guessed-at.

Let my knees go to someone
whose own have been rendered
stiff and inflexible
by snows or frost.

Let another take my arms
if hers have been amputated.
Others may have my senses
with their thirsts and hungers.

In this way, let me be used up
and shared out like a loaf,
crumbs tossed to the north or south
so I’ll never again be one.

I will be lightened
as if by coppicing,
limbs falling and unburdening me
of this tree-like self.

Ah, what a relief! Oh sweet reward,
vertical descent!

El Reparto

Si me ponen al costado
la ciega de nacimiento,
le diré, bajo, bajito,
con la voz llena de polvo:
—Hermana, toma mis ojos.

¿Ojos? ¿para qué preciso
arriba y llena de lumbres?
En mi Patria he de llevar
todo el cuerpo hecho pupila,
espejo devolvedor
ancha pupila sin párpados.

Iré yo a campo traviesa
con los ojos en las manos
y las dos manos dichosas
deletreando lo no visto
nombrando lo adivinado.

Tome otra mis rodillas
si las suyas se quedaron
trabadas y empedernidas
por las nieves o la escarcha.

Otra tómeme los brazos
si es que se los rebanaron.
Y otras tomen mis sentidos
con su sed y con su hambre.

Acabe así, consumada
repartida como hogaza
lanzada a sur o a norte
no seré nunca más una.

Será mi aligeramiento
como un apear de ramas
que me abajan y descargan
de mí misma, como de árbol.

¡Ah, respiro, ay dulce pago,
vertical descendimiento!

Series Navigation← Si rigide le desert de l’Autre / So Rigid is the Desert of the Other by France Théoretoh (ô) by Raôul Duguay →


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