Statue to follow once I get to Santiago, but for now…here in Chile they call their notes by the people on them and this is a ‘Gabriela’, named for Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American poet and only the fifth woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. Mistral was also a humanist, a diplomat and an educator, and was lauded for her work to increase access to libraries and schools. While in Chile I am reading her ‘Locas mujeres’ / ‘Madwomen’ poems in a bilingual edition edited and translated by Randall Couch, and thought today would be a good day to celebrate her.
‘I believe in prophetic speech…still. I believe in Cassandra, I believe in Electra and in the charming Antigone…For me they are more alive than the (Institute for) Intellectual Cooperation and its choice group of old men.’
(Mistral to Ocampo, in This America of Ours: The Letters of Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo edited by Elizabeth Horan and Doris Meyer)
As an accompaniment to the Argentine leg of my travels, in both Buenos Aires and the mountains and forests of Patagonia, I have been reading a short, selected works by the Argentine poet, Alfonsina Storni (Tú me quieres blanca/You want me white) My Spanish is terrible, so this has been an interesting immersion in both her work and the language. One minute I am wrestling with a Latin American phrasebook for sundries, the next the early 1900s world of this much-loved and proto-feminist poet. Difficult to pigeonhole, but influenced by both modernism and romanticism, her poems are lyrical, angry and sad, and explore the culture of the time and a woman’s place within it. Sadly, struggling with solitude and incurable breast cancer, and rather than suffer the ravages of treatment, she eventually drowned herself at Mar del Plata in 1938. Her last poem ‘Voy a dormir’ (I’m going to sleep) was written as a goodbye just before this, and was published in La Nación.
Here is a short poem of hers, translated by Muna Lee in Poetry Magazine’s landmark anthology of Latin American poets back in 1925. Lee herself helped bring female voices like Storni and Gabriela Mistral (who I have bookmarked for Chile) to English language readers of poetry –
Sí, yo me muevo, vivo, me equivoco;
agua que corre y se entremezcla, siento
el vértigo feroz del movimiento:
huelo las selvas, tierra nueva toco.
Sí, yo me muevo, voy buscando acaso
soles, auroras, tempestad y olvido.
¿Qué haces allí misérrimo y pulido?
Eres la piedra a cuyo lado paso.
Yes, I move, I live, I wander astray—
Water running, intermingling, over the sands.
I know the passionate pleasure of motion;
I taste the forests; I touch strange lands.
Yes, I move—perhaps I am seeking
Storms, suns, dawns, a place to hide.
What are you doing here, pale and polished—
You, the stone in the path of the tide?