This Spanish-English bilingual volume gathers the most famous and representative prose writings of Gabriela Mistral, which have not been as readily available to English-only readers as her poetry.
The first Latin American to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, the Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) is often characterized as a healing, maternal voice who spoke on behalf of women, indigenous peoples, the disenfranchised, children, and the rural poor. She is that political poet and more: a poet of philosophical meditation, self-consciousness, and daring. This is a book full of surprises and paradoxes. The complexity and structural boldness of these prose-poems, especially the female-erotic prose pieces of her first book, make them an important moment in the history of literary modernism in a tradition that runs from Baudelaire, the North American moderns, and the South American postmodernistas. It's a book that will be eye-opening and informative to the general reader as well as to students of gender studies, cultural studies, literary history, and poetry.
This Spanish-English bilingual volume gathers the most famous and representative prose writings of Gabriela Mistral, which have not been as readily available to English-only readers as her poetry. The pieces are grouped into four sections. "Fables, Elegies, and Things of the Earth" includes fifteen of Mistral's most accessible prose-poems. "Prose and Prose-Poems from Desolación / Desolation " presents all the prose from Mistral's first important book. "Lyrical Biographies" are Mistral's poetic meditations on Saint Francis and Sor Juana de la Cruz. "Literary Essays, Journalism, 'Messages'" collects pieces that reveal Mistral's opinions on a wide range of subjects, including the practice of teaching; the writers Alfonso Reyes, Alfonsina Storni, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Pablo Neruda; Mistral's own writing practices; and her social beliefs. Editor/translator Stephen Tapscott rounds out the volume with a chronology of Mistral's life and a brief introduction to her career and prose.
- Biographical Data
- Principal Publications
- I. Fables, Elegies, and Things of the Earth
- El mar
- The Sea
- La cebra
- The Zebra
- El faisán dorado
- The Golden Pheasant
- La harina
- Elogio de la sal
- In Praise of Salt
- El higo
- The Fig
- La piña
- The Pineapple
- La tortuga
- The Tortoise
- La jirafa
- The Giraffe
- La alpaca
- The Alpaca
- El girasol
- The Sunflower
- Elogio del cristal
- In Praise of Glass
- Elogio de la arena
- In Praise of Sand
- Segundo elogio de la arena
- Second Praise-Song for the Sand
- II. Prose and Prose-Poems from Desolación/Desolation (1922)
- La oración de la maestra
- The Teacher's Prayer
- Los cabellos de los niños
- Children's Hair
- Poemas de las madres
- Poems of the Mothers
- I. Poemas de las madres
- I. Poems of the Mothers
- II. Poemas de la madre más triste
- II. Poems of the Saddest Mother
- Canciones de cuna
- Motivos del barro
- Motifs of Clay
- La flor de cuatro pétalos
- The Four-Petaled Flower
- Poemas del éxtasis
- Poems of Ecstasy
- El arte
- Decálogo del artista
- Decalogue of the Artist
- Comentarios a poemas de Rabindranath Tagore
- Commentary on Poems by Rabindranath Tagore
- Lecturas espirituales
- Spiritual Readings
- Motivos de la Pasión
- Motifs of the Passion
- Poemas del hogar
- Poems of the Home
- Prosa escolar/Cuentos escolares
- Scholarly Prose/Stories for Schools
- Por qué las cañas son huecas
- Why Bamboo Canes Are Hollow
- Por qué las rosas tienen espinas
- Why Roses Have Thorns
- La raíz del rosal
- The Root of the Rosebush
- El cardo
- The Thistle
- La charca
- The Puddle
- III. Lyrical Biographies
- Canto a San Francisco
- Song to Saint Francis
- Silueta de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
- Profile of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
- IV. Literary Essays, Journalism, "Messages"
- Decir el sueño
- To Declare the Dream
- Pensamientos pedagógicos
- Thoughts on Teaching
- Silueta de la india mexicana
- Profile of the Mexican Indian Woman
- Un hombre de México: Alfonso Reyes
- A Man of Mexico: Alfonso Reyes
- Alfonsina Storni
- Alfonsina Storni
- Invitación a la lectura de Rainer María Rilke
- An Invitation to Read Rainer Maria Rilke
- Si Napoleón no hubiese existido
- If Napoleon Had Never Existed
- José Martí
- José Martí
- Recado sobre Pablo Neruda
- A Message about Pablo Neruda
- Como escribo
- How I Write
- Sobre cuatro sorbos de agua
- On Four Sips of Water
- La palabra maldita
- The Forbidden Word
- Mis ideas sociales
- My Social Beliefs
- Translator's Remarks
- Index of Titles
Readers in Latin American often call her "Gabriela."
First, we just don't do that in English, call Emily Dickinson "Emily" or HD "Hilda." Usage and literal translation are at stake. For us the first-name informality—especially in the absence of an outline of a public personality— sounds condescending, even patronizing in an egregiously gender-based way. Second, it's a question of cultural translation: to call Mistral "Gabriela" would suggest familiarity, affection, and admiration for work that we Anglophones factually don't share. We don't adequately know Mistral's passionate poems or their prose and prose-poem compass, or the life-myth, or her social and literary and political contexts, or the voice in which she makes her emotional and political interventions. Feminism and pacifism, for which she speaks eloquently, have faced a different set of determining conditions in a culture of machismo, in a Catholic culture, in a culture that experienced nation formation and Modernism differently. We tend to read her through the paradigm of our own gender issues, for instance, but in the process we distort. To call her "Gabriela" would reinforce that distortion. Third is what one might call a question of "historical" translation: because we don't share the myth with its posthumous dynamic, nor the reasons why the icon satisfies some felt need we don't share, we comprehend neither the need nor the satisfaction. To call this outspoken, committed, integral writer iconically, by her first name, suggests that we can identify her influence and her positions with the speaker of her text or with the icon. Such representativeness participates in the recurrent Latin American traditions of manifesto essays and personally popular poets, traditions that (since Whitman) we adumbrate but don't fully share. Our poets don't speak for us quite so publicly, or, at least, since Modernism, we don't so directly assume that unacknowledged legislation.
For English-language readers, it's a question of knowledge. If we know Mistral at all, we think we know a voice of personal witness and tenderness: through thc anguish and anger and "fatal knot" of her first book, Desolación (Desolation, 1922; though it's not been consistently edited and translated with its poems and prose together); through the fuller pedagogical interests of Ternura (Tenderness, 1924); through the wide representativeness of Tala (Felling, 1938); through the tragic personalism in her last book, Lagar (Wine Press, 1954); through (much less) the collectivity of the narrative Poema de Chile (published posthumously, 1967). Perhaps we recognize her as the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize (in literature, 1945), which she accepted as "the candidate of women and children." Our familiarity with Mistral's reputation as a vast "maternal" force does accurately register the history of her reception in Spanish and in English, the latter mediated by Doris Dana's important and generous Selected Poems of 1971; anticipated by Langston Hughes's Selected Poems (1937) and complemented by later specific translations, including Christine Jacox Kyle's elegantly musical, biblically inflected Poems of the Mothers (1996) and Maria Giachetti's helpful Gabriela Mistral: A Reader (1993; edited by Marjorie Agosín); and mythologized in many essays that claim her on behalf of various sociopolitical positions.
The table of biographical facts at the front of this book should give a sense of the data on which the icon of the Spanish-American "Gabriela" is built. She is the serene, somewhat austere, sculptural figure on stamps and on plaques and statues in many public buildings and schools in South America and Mexico (where she served with José Vasconcelos as advisor to post-Revolution programs of literacy and education in the 1920s). She is identified with the inviting intimacies of her (often female-identified) poems, sometimes in a sentimental mode. In an important sense, she won the Nobel Prize in 1945 because after the Spanish War and World War II, the world seemed to need an icon of healing, devout, even oddly virginal "maternity." She speaks "universally" by speaking "personally" (the paradox partly explains why readers sense that austere first-name familiarity), and her tone generalizes by speaking on behalf of specific subjects and to specific audiences: women, indigenous peoples, the disenfranchised, children, the rural poor.
As even this brief account should suggest, the icon of "Gabriela" represents a complicated, contested combination of qualities. At first, it was this set of apparent paradoxes that interested me about her poems and prose, especially her prose-poems. She is a rural middle-class professional woman who becomes the voice of the disempowered. She is the female-identified writer whom we read as "universalizing," shifting the gender norm. (Yet she uses the male pronoun to refer to the "artist," in writings about aesthetics.) She is the professor of "messianic purity" (Elizabeth Horan's powerful phrase), with its cultural complications, who writes eloquently of desire; some of the intensities of her pieces about motherhood seem to explore the erotic charge between mother and child for example. Identified by her grandmother as "mentally deficient," she stammered as a child and was not allowed to continue her formal education, yet she became a teacher and an internationally renowned educational consultant. A prize-winning young female poet in Chile, she had her first book published in North America, through the mediation of advocates in New York. She never married (the life-myth, which Mistral herself helped to promulgate in various versions, cloudily suggests youthful disappointments and an early male suitor who killed himself), and yet she raised a child, and she vividly registers the nuances of heterosexual womanhood, even the psychological and somatic intensities of pregnancy and maternity. She is a "unifier" of her essentially mestizo pueblo who is obsessively interested in "bloodlines," race, and inherited characteristics. (Alert readers might note that in this book the translations of Mistral's noun "raza" float. At times she uses the term to mean ethnic "race," at other times, "the [Chilean] people" and "society" in the sense of the cohesive population of a modern nation-state.) Rightfully acknowledged as a "healer" and a pacifist, after her adoptive son's death by apparent suicide, she was outspokenly bitter on racial (and political) terms about the children who had tormented the boy at school (and about others... she was talented at remembering grudges); she was also eloquent in the public, religious terms of her grief, which informed much of Lagar. She was a lay member of the Franciscan order who did not attend Mass regularly. She was a cosmopolitan writer who identified herself with her "raza," who repeatedly claimed the enduring influences of Chilean landscapes and of Chilean material/maternal realities on her style, and yet who lived much of her adult life as a self-imposed "vagabond" or "exile" ("autoexilio perpetuo" is her description), serving as Chilean cultural attaché and as U.N. representative. A social critic who spoke on behalf of the transnational, often class-identified category of women, she tended to resist internationalizing political movements. In her poems an accomplished, elegant formalist, she self-consciously addresses an audience that was not completely literate. Though she consistently defined herself as an "outsider" in relation to dominant Latin American literary powers, intrigues, and communities, she conducted, with many major literary figures, a remarkably rich correspondence (much of which has yet to be completely edited or translated), and in her later years in North America she gathered around her a vital community of female artists, translators, and scholars.
We might add that the myth itself is a kind of paradox, both in its internal configurations and in its application. The first-name familiarity suggests a formal figure of remote advocacy, and in its conflicted model of female "messianic purity," it does sometimes tend to serve an "official" discourse, in the social conservatism of contemporary Chile, for instance. I suspect some of that complexity is at stake in Neruda's two affectionate sonnets to Mistral (in his Cien sonetos de amor, 1959). In one (# LIX), apparently on the occasion of Mistral's funeral in 1957, he protests the fate of the "pobres poetas" (poor poets) whose reputations, even at their own funerals, can't protect them from being co-opted by aimpasible pompa" and formulaic self-serving "entregados al rito" (mindless pomp and rituals). And yet in the other sonnet (# LXVIII), Neruda wryly alludes to the figurehead of a ship, which seems to resemble Mistral herself or her image, and from which Neruda did have to discourage pious local women in Isla Negra from kneeling and offering flowers as if to the icon of the "niña de madera" (girl made of wood).
Not all of these complications in the professional life-myth are serious paradoxes, of course. And yet these complications were what intrigued me, at first. Only gradually did I come to see some of these apparent incongruities as embodying a remarkable integrity, one of vitality and motion, not the autonomous, slightly pious integration of the iconic myth. This book exists to show something of that remarkable "integrity within diversity" of Gabriela Mistral's career.
In different modes, biographical, literary, and textual critics have converged on these issues and have helped me to see the work more systemically. In his intellectual/biographical study of Mistral (La desterrada en su patria: Gabriela Mistral en Magallanes, 1918-l920, 1977), Roque Esteban Scarpa richly details the political and historical contexts of her early-adult development. Popular biographies like Volodia Teitelboim's Gabriela Mistral, secreta pública (1991) have mined Mistral's observation "vivo dos vidas" (I live two lives, that of the "world" and "the other") and so have explored the complications and tensions among Mistral's public/lyrical and private selves.
In another mode of address, critical studies have drawn a portrait of a focused artist alert to her craft and to her audience, its conformation, and even its creation. In this context, I have benefited from Elizabeth Horan's masterful study (available in Spanish and in English, viz., Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People, 1994), which reads Mistral in a critical "female" light (focused on questions of audience and readership) different from that of our (North American) political assumptions; also from Luis de Arrigoitia's Pensamiento y forma en la prosa de Gabriela Mistral (1989, which contains a first-rate bibliography), and from Tierra, indio, mujer: Pensamiento social de Gabriela Mistral, by Lorena Figueroa, Keiko Silva, and Patricia Vargas (2000). Fernando Alegria has helped me to understand how, despite the "official version" of the icon and despite her consular position, Mistral's politics were often outspokenly anti-bureaucratic and anti-militaristic ("Aspectos ideológicos de los recados de Gabriela Mistral," in Gabriela Mistral, ed. Díaz-Casanueva et al., 1980). (For instance, Mistral refused to obey governmental policy banning Pablo Neruda from consular attentions when he left Chile.)
In still another mode, editors and anthologists of Mistral's work have contributed increasingly more accurate texts and fuller bibliographical evidence of Mistral's scope, her range of interests, and integrity of purpose. Spanish-language editors have patiently been collecting scattered pieces from journals in Europe and Latin America. She published many journalistic observations, editorials, feuilletons, and recados, or "messages," early on in verse and later in prose, often introducing and commenting on places, ideas, and other writers. Notable among these textual contributors have been Roque Esteban Scarpa (Gabriela anda por el mundo, 1978; Gabriela piensa en..., 1978; Elogio de las cosas de la tierra, 1979; Grandeza de los oicios, 1979); Jaime Quezada (Gabriela Mistral: Escritos políticos, 1994); Alfonso Calderón (Materias: Prosa inédita, 1978); Gastón Von dem Busche (Reino, 1983, which includes prose-poems); Luis Vargas Saavedra (Prosa religiosa, 1978; Recados para hoy y mañana, 1999); and Alfonso Escudero (La prosa de Gabriela Mistral: Fichas de contribucion a su inventario, 1957, helpful for the study of some textual variants). The standard Poesías completas was edited by Margaret Bates in 1962 (4th ed., 1976). This editorial work is especially useful because Mistral collected her poems infrequently in complete books, and her prose even less often.
As I say, these complications or catachreses in the icon of "Gabriela" were what first attracted me to her poems, prose, and prose-poems. Many of the questions, of course, proved to be simply twists of sociology, of biographical speculation, or of cultural translation. Others, proving to be more rewarding questions, have informed some of the choices of texts in this collection. Recent readings of Mistral in Latin America have also moved decisively beyond the received myth as well; interesting compendia of encounters by contemporary Hispanic writers and critics with Mistral and with the icon are available in Una palabra cómplice, edited by Raquel Olea and Soledad Fariña (1990/1997), and in Re-leer hoy a Gabriela Mistral, edited by Gastón Lillo and J. Guillermo Renart, 1997. As those encounters signal, another set of complications arises from within the texts themselves, raising questions that a translation also needs to address. Let me highlight several.
At points where one might expect a mid-twentieth-century writer to reach toward Marxist or existentialist or other systematic consolidations, Mistral surprises me with her insistence on Franciscan simplicities, subjectivities, domestic truths, and landscapes. (I suspect that this is one of the reasons why she is not "canonized" in the way that other Modernist or Vanguardist experimental writers are. Her work is often defined in counterrelation to the Modernist model of Rubén Darío.) One example: during her years in France, Mistral resisted engagement with questions about social policies, especially suffrage. Because in English she is most often read (and taught) through the lens of our version of feminism, positions like these can seem problematic. (Once again, I suspect that's one reason that pieces like the complex, passionate prose-poem sequences of Desolación are not much read or taught in our culture, though the more emotionally traditional lyrics from that book are.) On first glance, the apparent female "masochism" of the passionate Desolación prose pieces can seem mildly embarrassing, not quite fitting the critical paradigm. And yet the more I read those pieces, the more they seemed consistent, however I might try to "translate" their politics. Mistral argues from a different set of cultural assumptions, though apparently using the same vocabulary, and the cognates cause us problems. Mistral's "feminism" assumed the constructive nature of gender roles; she saw suffrage as a problem less urgent than the challenge to honor, defend, and reward "female" work in "female" spheres, from which influence can expand outward. What could seem an inconsistency—her resistance to "public" (viz., male) questions of polity—proves to be consistent with her commitment to the mandates, as she saw them, of female identity and realities: the essential formation of human bodies through childbirth and maternity, and the necessary extension of those roles in education as the formation of the child's consciousness and spirituality. By these standards, the status of mothers and teachers, in questions for instance about the education of women and children and about the preparation and working conditions of (usually female) teachers—as in her work in Mexico and Chile and in writing texts for schools and for adult students—was a more pressing, because more primary, concern: what was at stake was female identity, influence, and artistry. Or more precisely, as a member of a rural middle class, Mistral placed a higher priority on problems of female vulnerability in the face of male power in its various modes— domestic, social, and economic—and her public and literary commitments reflected that hierarchy of concerns.
Similarly, it's possible to read Mistral's later pacifism as part of her commitment to the "maternal" mode, and to the unapologetically socially constructed "feminine." And it's rewarding to read her interest in "race" as related to place and landscape (a trope familiar to Chileans, and related to Chilean national identity, ever since the Spanish poet/chronicler Alfonso Ercilla y Zúñiga praised the brave resistance of the indigenous Araucanians, in the sixteenth century). Sometimes such landscapes are gendered, confounding "matria" and "patria," and sometimes they are paysages moralisés. In this context, I'm interested in the landscape sketches that frame the prose-poems on St. Francis and Sor Juana, and in the Mexican landscapes of the "Indian Woman" essay. The landscapes of tropical Asia help her to understand the "surrealist" connections between metaphors in the early poems of Pablo Neruda, "Northern" landscapes help her to explain Rilke's solitudes, and her sketches "Chile" and "Four Sips of Water" relish their catalogues of different terrains, character, and cultural types. Such connections within these Mistral texts point to an integrity deeper than the apparent paradoxes of the biography and of the iconic "Gabriela."
Another surprise has been the nuanced changes of form that Mistral effects in her prose pieces. In the sequences from Desolación, for instance, the discontinuities of the serial form allow her a stop-and-go rhythm of presentation that enacts a rich sense of obsessiveness, of return to smoldering issues by lateral metaphorical moves. She reinforces this structural and emotional effect with smaller local effects: the indistinctness of her pronoun reference, for instance, and even the length of her sentences. (Sometimes, to the dismay of the translator, Spanish sentence structure allows for significantly more continuity and subordination than English does. What sounds elegant in Spanish can sound rattlingly loquacious when one translates the syntax directly. I've tried to minimize the occasions when I've actually departed from Mistral's constructions, but in some cases not to do so would be to import suggestions of garrulousness.)
These structural formations run parallel to other local nuances of style in Mistral's prose. She is a cosmopolitan writer whose literary influences range from "Golden Age" flourishes to the "Caribbean" vigor of José Martí to touches of Indian mysticism (through the examples of Tagore and Krishnamurti) to folklore, the Song of Songs, biblical fables, epistolary style, prayers, and cradle-songs. Her use of those latter models (more in the first book than in Tala, for instance) is not exactly ironic, in a cultural critique or in a postcolonial mode of individuation, as with some other Modernist, modernista, and Vanguardist writers. I'm intrigued by the changes she rings on those models. Her folklore has as much "sobriety" (her word) and strangeness as it has traditional wry charm (as in the "Stories for Schools," texts written especially for classroom use). Though the passionate prose-poem sequences of Desolación use personae, their address to an unidentified "you" derives some of its power from her indistinct pronouns. In the cradle-songs, for example, the gender of the lover (or child) is consistently, sometimes surprisingly, undeclared, and even the reference for some of the pronouns is indefinite: an appropriate effect in poems of love and despair that question the I-ness and thou-ness of the separate lovers, or in maternal pieces in which the pregnant woman doesn't yet know the gender of her child (though she sometimes seems to expect a son). Similarly, the "folkloric" or domestic element of the cradle-songs is both honored as vital tradition and used tendentiously. I find it remarkable that we hear the anxiety and vulnerability and affectionate concern of the mothers in both sets of poems as the grounding tones of works that adopt lullabies as their form. We might have expected reassurance; instead, we get a fierce clarity like that of the Brothers Grimm, or of Alfonsina Storni's famous poem "Voy a dormir" (I'm Going to Sleep), or of the rocking motion of the murmuring mother who sings both to the child and to herself (as also in English: "When the wind blows, the cradle will fall..."). As a reader and translator, let me here seize the occasion to declare my admiration for earlier translations of these "mother" poems and cradle-song lyrics (the latter of which Mistral subsequently published as lineated poems in books that came out after their first appearance, as prose-poems, in the 1922 edition of Desolación; Ternura, in 1924, already contains the poems in quatrain form). These pieces are some of the most famous of Mistral's work, and their tonal polyvalence, it seems to me, has legitimately made them a rich field for various interpretative translations. I have studied, read, and learned from Doris Dana's clarities, from Langston Hughes's tendernesses, from Christine Jacox Kyle's dynamic musicality. I eagerly recommend those other versions, both to praise them on their own terms and to emphasize the pentimento effect of subsequent translations of good poems and prose-poems. I include my versions of both sequences as prose-poems in part because the cradle-songs speak differently as prose, and, in this context, they are part of the holistic argument of the prose sections of the book Desolación (of which all the prose, except for the final disclamatory "Voto," is given here). As part of that prose sequence's continuum of passion and verbalization of solitude and social critique of gender injustices, the prose-poems function somewhat differently, I think, than they do as independent lyric-poem sequences, and I offer that rationale as explanation for why another translation is "necessary." Mistral revised poems and prose-poems repeatedly, often through different editions of the same book, and in this case, too, the pieces change slightly in revision (the 1922 version compared, for instance, with the 1950 edition; Mistral also reprinted some cradle-songs in Lecturas para mujeres and in Ternura). Mistral's note explaining the occasion of the "saddest mother" pieces, when she saw an indigent pregnant woman and was moved by compassion to speak on her behalf and that of others, appears as prefatory material in some editions; in the 1922 prose version, it had appeared later in the series, significantly, after the woman has sung her own tremulous, passionate cradle-songs in her own voice. (I trust Christine Kyle's argument about the appropriateness of moving the explanatory note to the front when the sequence is published autonomously, as in 1950, but in the 1922 edition, such a framing device would have seemed like ventriloquism. I respect the tact with which Mistral defers that information when the sequences are part of the larger whole.) Because of such textual differences, and because I hear the pressure of folklore elements used fiercely here and in the cradle-songs, I translate the title of the sequence "Canciones de cuna" as "Lullabies." Of course, it literally and culturally means cradle-songs, as others have rendered the phrase (and Mistral could have used the Spanish nouns arrullos or nanas, which more literally translate as "lullabies"). And yet, in the context of reading them as prose-poems continuous with the full book's fierce arguments about power, female sexuality, vulnerability, female artistry, and the authority of desire, that title rendered as "Lullabies" seems to me also to indicate their reach back toward their lyrical roots as "ordinary" lullabies (the more common word in English) and seems also to highlight a tonal complexity in Mistral's use of those folkloric, domestic elements. As in the "Mothers" poems, she conveys here the vulnerability, anxious tenderness, power, and desperation of these mothers, in the form readily available to them: the common lullabies mothers sing. The poems are, after all, the songs of mothers, plural ("Poemas de las madres"): though they use the rhetoric and somatic experience of individuals (one pregnant woman with a male partner; the other, pregnant and abandoned), the pieces generalize, in the plural sense of that word, and "Lullabies" seems a plausibly common, familiar idiom to register that plurality.
Another stylistic complication is that Mistral—an intensely autobiographical writer, despite her tendencies toward modesty, tact, and pseudonym—offers some of her most powerful prose work as verbally displaced. Throughout Mistral's poems, stringencies of form—subtle modulations of rhythms, patterned repetitions, the use of "historical" first-person presenttense verbs—account for some of the "distancing" effect, the sense that the poem is assuming the position of a representative "I" who speaks metonymically through her experience on behalf of others, and yet who sometimes seems to go out of her way to avoid using the first-person pronoun and selfreference. Prose and prose-poems have to rely on other subtleties: on personae or externalized subjects, for example (in the "lyrical biographies" of St. Francis and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). And yet the formal challenges of those prose pieces occasion some wonderful responses. The biography of St. Francis, for instance, turns into a meditation on the quiddity of Francis, the mystery of Franciscan transparency and purposiveness. What seems at first an associative account of the facts of Francis's life (what would his hair have been like?) becomes a Modernist meditation on the nature of otherness, will, holiness, and unimaginable simplicity, pressing against the capacity of language to make the mystery known through projection, embodiment, and displacement. Francis represents the unspeakable, the unknowable but historically located fact. We know he was, and yet how can he have been? How could the fact of him be re-presented? How is such luminous simplicity possible in the world, the poem wonders, and what would it be like? Would it be "like" anything else, and if not, how can we talk about it? That is, the question of his mysticism abuts questions of metaphor and of language as via negativa. Is it possible in language to speak the unspeakable, the unimaginable, of historical fact? Related questions are familiar to our contemporaries through issues raised by Theodore Adorno and Tzvetan Todorov. Mistral's lyrical responses to such questions (beginning with an address to the saint's mother, his material and spiritual "origin") offer projective lyricism as a completion while remaining frank about the provisional nature of our understanding and of our articulations. Formal verbal imagination is inadequate, but it is what we have.
On parallel grounds, the biography of Sor Juana portrays an intellectual woman in a (Latin) context in which such female accomplishment is suspect, patronized, and potentially silenced by both external and internal forces. The issue is, at root, autobiographical for Mistral, but—despite the icon of personalism and autobiography—Mistral's praxis here is analytical, not "personal," making possible a social critique of the self's position that the self-dramatizing, representative gesture of the Iyric could not. Where St. Francis's deflected narrative had begun with his mother, Sor Juana's begins with a landscape and a society that form her: in the shaping of the female intellectual, the maternal is displaced by the material and the social. Mistral's relentless clarity pursues the questions of Sor Juana's experience beyond projective self-revelation and beyond immediate social politics as she moves toward a realization of the price that such tensions exact from the woman herself. In early adulthood, Juana finds ambiguous harbor in the female community of the convent; she concludes as an ''authentic" but suffering nun, and sharing the suffering of others, as she kisses her "Cristo." Is this iconic object of suffering a crucifix, or is it something abstract, her Christ? The Spanish word allows both, in a material and abstract address that honors the material and the abstract nature of suffering. Sor Juana acquiesces at the end of the poem, but she is still aspiring to know both. The translation, however, apparently must choose—crucifix or Christ—choose, that is, between material suffering and abstract understanding as the vehicle of Sor Juana's authenticity: the very nature of the saint's dilemma. The question (about the "Cristo") is, appropriately, one of iconicity. In Spanish, both meanings are at stake; shes likely embracing the abstraction through the mediating object, the icon. In this case, in English, a footnote has to supply the important double meaning that Mistral's Spanish embodies.
In this context, let me mention also some difficult judgment calls I had to make in the editorial choices for this book. I reluctantly decided that for reasons of space this collection could not include Mistral's lovely essay on the Bronte family ("Emilia Bronte: La familia del Reverendo Bronte," 1930). Its excellence as a study of the female artist and the dynamics of female consciousness and male dominance would recommend that essay on its own terms, were it not for the presence, in the same book, of essays and lyrical biographies that look sideways at some of the same concerns. I'd like the reader to follow up this collection by reading Mistral's essays on feminism (especially from the 1920s and 1930s), her "recados" (messages), her essays on contemporary political and spiritual questions, her travelogues and landscape sketches (collected for instance in Gabriela anda por el mundo, ed. Roque Esteban Scarpa, 1978). Again for reasons of book length, this collection could not include examples of Mistral's rich correspondence. I encourage readers to consult individual volumes of letters (e.g., correspondence with Jacques Maritain, 1989; Alfonso Reyes, 1990; Pedro Prado, 1993; and, more familiarly, with the Err´zuriz family, 1995) and Mistral's correspondence with Victoria Ocampo, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press.
The Spanish texts reproduced here are the latest revised versions available, according to the sequence in which they first appeared. (The exceptions are several prose pieces in Desolación, which had appeared elsewhere earlier.) Most are available in books mentioned above, others can be found in special periodical collections in New York, Buenos Aires, and Washington, D.C. In the infrequent cases in which Mistral revised journalistic pieces, I have for the most part chosen the fullest revised book or journal appearance of pieces that remained journalistic. (The revisions in those cases are chiefly stylistic refinements, not conceptual or generic reconsiderations. Similarly, Mistral published sketches of St. Francis in the 19205 and, late in her life, prose pieces that work as pieces of the biography.) The exception is the prose section of Desolación, given here in full as it appeared in the first (I922) edition, including the "Canciones de cuna" series (where it first appeared as prose in 1922, then was relineated as verse in Ternura, 1924) and the "unrevised" version of the "Poemas de las madres."
“With his new translations . . . Stephen Tapscott makes great strides toward redefining Mistral, her work, and her life for the North American reader. This collection denies the critical urge to allow Mistral’s most celebrated poetry to trump her multifaceted achievements and broad intellectual interests. For the anglophone Mistral aficionado, Selected Prose and Prose-Poems is a breath of fresh air from a window on unexplored terrain.”
“Tapscott's volume includes a rich variety of short texts--literary profiles, essays, stories for children, prose poems, biographies of religious figures, small fables extolling the romance of ordinary things, and writings on education and current events--and provides an excellent introduction to Mistral's prose. . . . [His] translations of Mistral's 'prose as tight as verse' are both lyrical and precise.”
Women's Review of Books