Gabriela Mistral

(1889 -1957)

Gabriela Mistral, pen name of Chilean poet, journalist, educator and diplomat Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, was the first Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, cited for her lyric poetry. After a rural, religious childhood, she began publishing and teaching as a teenager, going on to do important educational work in both Chile and Mexico, where she helped reorganize the school system and establish rural libraries. She traveled and lived abroad for years, teaching at colleges in the US and Puerto Rico, serving as a delegate to the UN and as consul in Europe, the US and Mexico. She received several honorary doctorates.

Mistral’s contribution to Latin American culture was immense, although her first collection of poems, Desolación (Despair, 1922) was published in the US, by Federico de Onis of Columbia University’s Hispanic Institute. The poems n her four collections are both passionate and spiritual; her themes range from grief to motherhood, childhood, her love of nature and of God. She wrote many poems for children, and was an impassioned voice for the oppressed. Her work has been translated by, among others, Langston Hughes and Ursula K. Le Guin. Her Poesías completas (Complete Poems) was published after her death, on Long Island, of cancer.


La casa

La mesa, hijo, está tendida
en blancura quieta de nata,
y en cuatro muros azulea,
dando relumbres, la cerámica.
Ésta es la sal, éste el aceite
y al centro el Pan que casi habla.
Oro más lindo que oro del Pan
no está ni en fruta ni en retama,
y da su olor de espiga y horno
una dicha que nunca sacia.
Lo partimos, hijito, juntos,
con dedos duros y palma blanda,
y tú lo miras asombrado
de tierra negra que da flor blanca.

Baja la mano de comer,
que tu madre también la baja.
Los trigos, hijo, son del aire,
y son del sol y de la azada;
pero este Pan «cara de Dios»
no llega a mesas de las casas.
Y si otros niños no lo tienen,
mejor, mi hijo, no lo tocaras,
y no tomarlo mejor sería
con mano y mano avergonzadas.

The House

The table, son, is laid
with the quiet whiteness of cream,
and on four walls ceramics
gleam blue, glint light.
Here is the salt, here the oil,
in the center, bread that almost speaks.
Gold more lovely than gold of bread
is not in broom plant or fruit,
and its scent of wheat and oven
gives unfailing joy.
We break bread, little son, together
with our hard fingers, our soft palms,
while you stare in astonishment
that black earth brings forth a white flower.

Lower your hand that reaches for food
as your mother also lowers hers.
Wheat, my son, is of air,
of sunlight and hoe;
but this bread, called “the face of God”,
is not set on every table.
And if other children do not have it,
better, my son, that you not touch it,
better that you do not take it
with ashamed hands.

Translated by Doris Dana

Tres árboles

Tres árboles caídos
quedaron a la orilla del sendero.
El leñador los olvidó, y conversan,
apretados de amor, como tres ciegos.

El sol de ocaso pone
su sangre viva en los hendidos leños
¡y se llevan los vientos la fragancia
de su costado abierto!

Uno, torcido, tiende
su brazo inmenso y de follaje trémulo
hacia otro, y sus heridas
como dos ojos son, llenos de ruego.

El leñador los olvidó. La noche
vendrá. Estaré con ellos.
Recibiré en mi corazón sus mansas
resinas. Me serán como de fuego.
¡Y mudos y ceñidos,
nos halle el día en un montón de duelo!

Three Trees

Three trees, struck down, were left by the
edge of the road.
The woodsman forgot them, so, they spoke,
clutching one and other out of love, like three blind men.

The dying sun spills its fiery blood
on the wounded logs,
While the fragrance of their open sides
is lifted away by the winds!

One, twisted, extends its mighty arm
with trembling leaves toward another,
and its wounds beg like
two pleading eyes.

They woodsman forgot them. Night is coming.
I will be one with them. Their mild resins
will flow into my heart. To me they’ll burn like fire.
And—day will find us, silent and clinging
together, in a heap of sorrow.

Translated by Jill Savitt

Canción de la Muerte

La vieja Empadronadora,
la mañosa Muerte,
cuando vaya de camino,
mi niño no encuentre.

La que huele a los nacidos
y husmea su leche,
encuentre sales y harinas,
mi leche no encuentre.

La Contra-Madre del Mundo,
la Convida-gentes,
por las playas y las rutas
no halle al inocente.

El nombre de su bautismo
–la flor con que crece —
lo olvide la memoriosa,
lo pierda, la Muerte.

De vientos, de sal y arenas
se vuelve demente,
y trueque, la desvariada,
el Oeste, y el Este.

Niño y madre los confunda
los mismo que peces,
y en el día y en la hora
a mí sola encuentre.

Song of Death

Old Woman Census-taker,
Death the Trickster,
when you’re going along,
don’t you meet my baby.

Sniffing at newborns,
smelling for the milk,
find salt, find cornmeal,
don’t find my milk.

Anti-Mother of the world,
People-Collector —
on the beaches and byways,
don’t meet that child.

The name he was baptized,
that flower he grows with,
forget it, Rememberer.
Lose it, Death.

Let wind and salt and sand
drive you crazy, mix you up
so you can’t tell
East from West,

or mother from child,
like fish in the sea.
And on the day, at the hour,
find only me.

Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

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