Mapping a different star: five poems by Gabriela Mistral

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 21 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

 

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.

Riches

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…

Riqueza

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!

Ten favorite books of 2014

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I don’t post book reviews the way I used to, and I feel more than a little guilty about that. But here at any rate is an annotated list of my top reads of 2014. (Note that most of them weren’t actually published in 2014. I have no desire ever to become one of those people who tries to read all the fashionable books.) In no particular order:

  1. Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Randall Couch (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Mistral doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s pigeonholes and neither do the women of these astonishing persona poems, translated into English for the first time in their entirety.

    Under a tree, I was only
    washing the journeys from my feet
    with my shadow for a road
    and dust for a skirt.
    —”The Fugitive Woman”

  2. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books, 2012). My favorite (OK, only) art history read of the year. It’s a definitive look at the marginal art of medieval manuscripts (and analogous carvings on cloisters and cathedrals) that manages to be readable and thought-provoking as well. If you liked Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, you’ll love this. Camille leads the reader step by step into a very different way of thinking, one in many ways more alien to the modern European or American worldview than (say) the 5th century BCE writings of Zhuangzi.

    Rather than being freaks in our sense, these images are conceived as products of the terrifyingly promiscuous medieval imagination. For imagination was not only understood to be a cognitive faculty lodged in the front of the brain, nearest the eyes and thus closest linked to vision, but a force that could actually create forms. As the thirteenth-century Polish scholar Witelo argued, imagination, being an intermediary between mind and matter, allowed demons to couple with human beings, since what was perceived in the phantasia was, in some cases, real. It was for this reason that pregnant women were urged not to look at monkeys or even to think of monstrous things, lest their imaginations impregnate their offspring with hideous forms.

  3. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Hackett, 2009). And speaking of Zhuangzi… I’ve long been an advocate of A.C. Graham’s translation, but Will Buckingham recommended this newer translation and he’s right: the scholarship and philosophical acuity raise the bar for all future translations of classic Daoist texts. Zhuangzi is a touchstone text for me, so getting acquainted with a new translation as authoritative and ground-breaking as this is an ongoing process. I’m never actually done reading Zhuangzi, just pausing to let it sink in for a while.

    Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world—and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it—and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?

    “Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely] beings—is either of us in a position to classify or evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”

    Carpenter Shi awoke and told his dream to his apprentice. The apprentice said, “If it’s trying to be useless, what’s it doing with a shrine around it?”

  4. Ancilla: Poems by Erin Murphy (Lamar University Press, 2014). Erin Murphy is currently my favorite central Pennsylvania poet. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, except that the area boasts such gifted and accomplished poets as Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, Ron Mohring, Marjorie Maddox, Todd Davis, Robin Becker, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Steven Sherill and Gabriel Welsch. Ancilla is a collection of portraits, both in the first and third person, of historical figures both famous and obscure, with a decidedly subversive and feminist slant. I was delighted to discover after I bought a copy at a reading that it contains a number of erasure poems, all very well done — and impossible to reproduce accurately here, as they are printed with all the white space from the erased portions intact. But let me share one of them in prose form, at least. Here’s “Jane Austen’s Letters to Sister Cassandra, Abridged”:

    January 1796
    I was nice. I behaved. But love was cut-up silk gloves and old paper hats. Regret is a vessel, not a spinning-wheel. The wind proved to be my future, delivered it to me with a sigh. I flirt with tears. I write.

  5. Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus, selected and translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago Books, 2013). Whenever I visit a new place, I like to buy at least one book of poetry written there. This is what I bought on my trip to Belgium last summer. Our host Marc Neys mentioned that he liked Hugo Claus’ plays better than his poetry, but the plays must be terrific, because the poetry is pretty damn amazing. I can’t believe: a) that I never heard of Hugo Claus before, and b) that he never won a Nobel prize. Clearly one of the premier figures in post-war European literature. This is not a bilingual edition, and at 245 pages it’s closer to a “collected” than a “selected” poems (not that the publisher uses either term).

    Flat is my white,
    As white as a fish of stone.
    I have been razed to the skin.
    My population purged.

    She has become someone else. Strange to my eye,
    The one who lived in the scruff of my neck.
    —”A Woman”

  6. Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain by Francis Pryor (Harper Perennial, 2008). Originally published in 2001, this is the first of a trilogy of popular archaeology books by Britain’s most prominent Bronze Age archaeologist, Francis Pryor, continuing with Britain B.C. and Britain A.D., which are both also marvelous (and spawned documentaries of the same titles that you can watch on YouTube—which is how I found out about Pryor in the first place). Pryor is not just a great interpreter of archaeological evidence, he’s also a gifted writer. It’s not surprising that he’s now turned his attention to the writing of detective fiction, for Seahenge too unfolds like a mystery (as so many archaeological discoveries tend to do).

    It is entirely possible that the Holme circle was never about human life and death at all. It could have been a shrine—possibly built by a family that identified with oak trees—to the trees themselves.

  7. The Hangman’s Lament: Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee (Green Integer, 2003). Nordbrandt was perhaps my favorite discovery of the year; I liked these poems so much, I immediately ordered everything else in English I could find. But this book remained my favorite of the lot, in part because it fits so comfortably into the hand (love those Green Integer editions).

    And the beams fall into place in the floor
    where someone will go to take his first shaky steps
    or dance to the sounds of a flute carved from the same tree
    when the wood’s time is about to end
    and a cold wind blows over thistles, stones, and broken ground.
    —”The Forester’s Dream”

  8. Two Faint Lines in the Violet by Lissa Kiernan (Negative Capability Press, 2014). Powerful, searing poems that among other issues grapple with one that’s bound to become even more topical in the years ahead: the effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. Kiernan’s first full-length book displays a virtuosic range of tones and forms, from the ironic “Recipe for Yellowcake” to the elegiac “Icarus Blues.” There’s a father who comes out as gay, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter… this may not be the American nuclear family we think we know, but it’s certainly one that deserves to enter our cultural vocabulary.

    You stood calm as an untroubled tree,
    rigid as the spine of an unopened book—listening to me
    listening to your slurred, impenetrable breathing.
    —”At the Door”

  9. Feral by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2014). I don’t have it at hand to quote from because I passed it on to a friend—not because I wanted to get rid of it, but because people who care about wild nature need to read it! The book has two different subtitles. The British edition, which I read, is subtitled “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” while the American edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is subtitled “Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life.” Either way, it’s a terrific book: a first-person account of the author’s quest for wildness and wild experiences in his native Britain, interwoven with an impassioned yet scientific (and extensively documented) brief for rewilding. George Monbiot is best known as a political columnist for the Guardian, but he studied biology at university and started off as an environmental reporter, and it’s obvious he’s a nature nerd and outdoorsman from way back. But more than anyone else I’ve read on wildlands conservation, including Dave Foreman, Monbiot takes a nuanced approach to the problems of balancing human needs with the preservation of the natural world. He tackles head-on some of the elitist attitudes that have plagued preservationist arguments in the past, and presents rewilding as—among other things—something we need to do for our own mental health. The book is also a great introduction to nature in the British Isles, cutting through a lot of the crap peddled by more mainstream British conservationists who try to ignore the fact that the islands were once covered in temperate rainforest, and that vast landscapes have been “sheepwrecked,” as Monbiot memorably terms it. American readers will be shocked at just how backward farming interests in Britain can be, blocking even the most innocuous species reintroductions and ecological restoration attempts and fighting to preserve a tamed and diminished landscape at all costs. But the book ends on a positive note, reminding us of how quickly marine ecosystems, for example, can recover if we can only find the political will to protect some areas from total exploitation.
  10. Approaching Ice: Poems by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea, 2010). As with Murphy’s Ancilla, a lot of research went into this book, which for Elizabeth Bradfield involved a certain amount of travel as a naturalist, as well, for the subject of her book is polar exploration, and how to write convincingly about that without multiple visits to the Arctic and Antarctic? Also as with Ancilla, I bought the book after a reading, which I wrote about at Moving Poems since Bradfield concluded with a multimedia segment.

    Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
    with certainty that something watched and loved us.
    That the very air was miraculous and ours.
    That all we had to do was show up.

    The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
    The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
    And they longed for everything they did not have.
    And they came home and longed again.
    —”Why They Went”

I can’t let the subject of books read in 2014 slip away without reminding everyone that Via Negativa’s own Luisa A. Igloria published not one, but two collections of poetry this year: Night Willow from Phoenicia Publishing and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser from Utah State University Press (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, selected by Mark Doty).

Riches

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

Who’d have thought a Chilean poem and an Irish folk song (“The Foggy Dew” on penny whistle, by British software- and web-developer Chris Kent) would go together so well? But the mix of sweetness and melancholy was just right, I thought.

This is one of those videopoems that began with some of my own footage (of a spinner who wishes to remain anonymous). When I thought about what sort of poem to match it with, Gabriela Mistral came to mind almost right away — those who know her work will understand what I mean. Nic S. readily agreed to make and upload a recording to her new site Pizzicati of Hosanna. (How many times have Nic and I collaborated on something now? I’ve lost count. Riches, I got ‘em!)

Dicha can mean happiness, joy, good luck, or good fortune. Many translators, influenced by the title and the “stolen” part, have gone with “fortune,” but I think it’s better to keep our options open. So often, the simplest poems are the hardest to translate…

Riches
by Gabriela Mistral

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…