April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!
Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.
Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.
She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.
I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.
A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*
When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.
When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.
My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.
For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos”
Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.
They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.
And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.
I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.
Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.
For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.
Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.